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Hundreds of Oakville Trafalgar High School students take part in an hour-long protest on Monday, walking out of class to draw attention to the student response to the indecisive action between the government and the teachers’ union.Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Extracurricular activities are being withdrawn in Ontario schools, as they were in British Columbia's labour dispute last spring. But educators increasingly see these "extras" as essential to producing an engaged, 21st-century student. And some are already compensating teachers for leading them.

When critical thinking, leadership and interpersonal skills are seen as key to future success, students clearly are missing out on more than basketball practice and high-school musicals.

At Monique-Proulx High School, in the town of Warwick, Que., the administration has taken the "essential" viewpoint: Every student and teacher is required to sign up for a club or sports team – from Spanish to improv to body building. There are about 30 activities for 600 students, and several times a year, regular afternoon classes are cancelled so students can pursue their chosen project. While teachers donate their time and there's no additional pay, a portion of those extra hours are calculated into their class load.

"We wanted to bind students to the school," said principal Julien Lavallée, who brought in the new policy to fight declining enrolment and improve student engagement. "We wanted to train them, and channel their energies at lunch time and after school."

A growing body of research supports the academic benefits and positive impact on student engagement and mental health that these activities promote – especially for low-income students, who aren't heading off to dance class and hockey practice once the bell rings.

"A theatre club can build all these life skills that matter more than knowing how to calculate a math equation," suggested Doug Wilms, the director of the Canadian Research Institute for Social Policy at the University of New Brunswick. "We think of curriculum as math, language, arts and science. And so other things get regulated as extracurricular. And yet they are starting to be seen as just as important."

Dr. Wilms leads an ongoing survey, in its eighth year, that now includes close to 500,000 students across the country. His research has shown that participation in clubs and teams is linked to the overall academic success of a school (and less significantly to individual marks). But participation strongly correlated with attendance, the value students place on doing well and their attachment to school in general – significant factors in improving academic results. A 2009 U.S. study that followed 8,000 students for a decade out of high school, found that those who participated in clubs and sports went further in university and earned more money – even accounting for characteristics such as race, parents' occupation and standardized test scores.

It's common in the U.S. for teachers to get some form of compensation for leading extracurricular activities, but the practice varies widely across Canada, where after-school obligations are usually considered voluntary (although there is often an expectation that teachers will participate). Teachers in Ontario and British Columbia, for example, are not compensated for coaching or running clubs. In some provinces, such as Manitoba and Saskatchewan, teachers may receive a day or two off in exchange for their extra hours. In Quebec, a new policy means that teachers in the English school board receive both time off and a small stipend for their extra work – varying amounts based on grants each school board receives and the time involved in the activity. Educators tend to be divided on the notion of compensation. Some are happy to get recognition for their efforts, while others worry the activities become less "voluntary" when compensated.

But if these "extra" activities are fundamental to a well-rounded education, should they be made more central to the curriculum? Dr. Wilms cites the provincewide focus on ethical citizenship in Alberta and the sustainable development mission in Manitoba as examples of bringing what would have once been after-school clubs into the school day. Stephen Hurley, an education consultant and veteran Toronto teacher, recalls discovering the guitar as a teenager, his school would take a break from regular classes on Fridays so students could pursue a non-academic interest. When budget cuts cancel band practice, he says, it costs students an important social opportunity. "Look at what people do when they leave school," said Mr. Hurley, "everything is grounded in relationships."