They are a trending topic in education right now: boutique academies in areas such as arts, sports, heritage, advanced academics and tech that keep bored students engaged while filling seats in school boards facing declining enrolment.
The demand for specialized programs is high across the country, with parents seeking cheaper alternatives to programs typically offered in private schools. The Toronto District School Board added nine elementary academies last month to its arsenal of 41 boutique schools, while Peel, one of Ontario's fastest-growing boards, is looking at expanding its suite of specialized programs. In Alberta, the government has responded with enthusiasm to the idea that since 1994, non-profit organizations and companies have created dozens of charter schools. There are also a range of specialized public schools, including some just for hockey devotees.
Yet, in a school board north of Toronto, an arts program is faced with closing because some trustees say it is elitist and not the right fit for children of elementary school age.
The arts program at Baythorn Public School in York Region has integrated a blend of dance, music and visual art with the Ontario curriculum for 25 years, and the demand for entry remains high. However, the administration has raised concerns that Grade 5 may be too early to specialize, and the school's audition requirement means it's not equally accessible to all children.
Parents are fighting tooth and nail to save their arts school – so many showed up at a public meeting on the issue last week that they couldn't fit in the meeting room. They say that, instead of facing the chopping block, the program should be expanded across the region. On the issue of access, they suggest the admissions criteria be replaced by a lottery system.
On the opposing side, trustee Diane Giangrande says elementary schools should be focused on broad-based foundational skills. Specialization, she says, should begin in high school.
This position, which appears to be held by most of the trustees, flies against the grain of current pedagogical theory. Research indicates that the earlier you lean toward specialization, the better.
Arts integration into schools should begin sometime in kindergarten through Grade 3, said Donn Poll, chief executive officer of Arts Integration Solutions, a U.S. non-profit organization dedicated to teaching educators on how to bring arts and crafts into the classroom.
"Think of your typical toddler who really are quite visual learners at that age. It's a really natural transition to tie arts to their early learning activities or dance to learning basic movement," Mr. Poll said. "I'd say we would have the exact opposite opinion of where this board seems to be going."
In principle, the idea of focusing on foundational skills, such as literacy and numeracy, is pragmatic, said Nina Bascia, a professor and director of the educational policy program at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
"So I can see how a trustee would come out with a statement like that, but I don't think it's founded that alternative elementary schools are by definition skirting foundational education content," she said. "Just because the learning might be more thematic or cross-disciplinary doesn't mean foundational stuff isn't happening at alternative schools."
Toronto District School Board's education director, Chris Spence, has repeatedly stressed that boutique academies meet the requirements of the province's curriculum, but the "lens of learning" shifts according to the academy. "We believe that kids have different learning styles and one size does not fit all."
As for the too-young-to-specialize question, Leonard Sax, a family physician and founder of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education in Pennsylvania, said single-gender classes are most effective when they begin at a young age.
"It is dramatically effective for children five, six, seven years of age and has much less impact on test scores and grades at the high school level," Dr. Sax said. This, he said, is because sex differences are larger in childhood and diminish with age.
The Toronto board's Dr. Spence said gender-specific education for children in primary grades was met with some resistance, so trustees decided instead to launch the boys and girls leadership academies for students in Grades 4 through 8 first, and then see look at expanding to younger grades.
However, at Edmonton Public Schools, the majority of the board's suite of alternative programs – aboriginal, Islamic, sports, health, arts – begin in elementary schools. "We often start in kindergarten initially and then add the program for the subsequent grade levels as students mature," said Cory Sinclair, spokesman for EPS. "There isn't any feeling that a certain alternative program might not be appropriate. We just adapt the curriculum to fit the needs of the students."
That the York board's only elementary arts program at Baythorn is facing the axe has drawn the ire of the retired board chairman and Olympic runner Bill Crothers.
"I just don't understand why the trustees are doing this," said Mr. Crothers, who has a high school sports academy named after him. "Rather than encourage their staff to be innovative and progressive, they started to 'instruct' their staff on how to go about educating students."
York trustees are expected to make a final decision on the board's equity policy in March after public consultations. The draft version of the policy would restrict elementary schools from offering any programs not required by the province, other than French immersion.