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Kate Dermo, left, and Layla Crowe study in the entrance of Hamilton’s Westmount Secondary School.

Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

Jewel White, a 15-year-old student, gathers her books and signs herself out of a routine morning math class. She is not leaving school for the day, but is off to try some more challenging equations.

This practice is not uncommon at Westmount Secondary School in Hamilton, Ont.,where an unconventional learning approach is gaining in popularity.

Westmount is one of eight regular schools in the country where students work at their own pace and set their own direction, spending as much or as little time as they need on subjects. Teachers act as advisers.

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With the classroom teachers' permission, students can sign out of a class to work on other material or walk into another class to catch up on another subject. And every two weeks – a so-called flex day – they dictate their own learning time, with support from their adviser.

At a time when a shrinking student population is causing boards to shutter schools, Westmount sits at 30 per cent overcapacity with 1,500 students. Its bursting enrolment led trustees last month to consider expanding the program to other locations.

"If we have the student interest, we're going to do our best to provide that sort of programming," said Todd White, chair of the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board.

Westmount's style of learning is not for every student, and those attending the school must show they are self-starters and have time-management skills. The school's self-paced, self-directed program began in 1990, and school staff accept students based on their learning profiles, not academic grades.

A self-paced learning style means that students generally decide how to allocate their class time. A math whiz can fast-track through material and use that extra time on history. Some courses, for example, are organized into 20 units and packaged in learning guides, which students work through at their own pace.

When she is not in a classroom, Jewel White can often be found in the school's learning commons, a study area for all students. There are teachers available to help, but generally students are working on their own assignments or projects.

Jewel said Westmount's self-paced style caught her attention when she was looking at high schools. Westmount is not the school closest to her home. She said she would often get into trouble in elementary school for being too disruptive in class because she would be done her work early and not have much else to do.

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"I find this kind of environment is a lot better for me," she said. "I like the thought of being able to work faster or slower if needed."

Another student, 13-year-old Andy Medjedovic, just started high school this year, but has fast-tracked mathematics and is now taking a Grade 12 data management course. He did his Grade 9 and 10 math classes through a program Westmount offers while he was still in elementary school, and he completed his Grade 11 math course last semester.

Andy said he hopes to graduate high school within three years.

"I like the idea of fast-tracking," he said. If he were in a different high school, he said, "it would be a much slower and duller year."

Only about a third of students live within walking distance of Westmount. One rides public transit for an hour to get to the building.

The challenge, trustees say, is not only to keep Westmount's student body from growing even bigger in its building but to also create a satellite location that students in other parts of the board can have access to. Board staff are expected to report their findings in the next couple of months, a first step in exploring a program expansion.

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Angela Ferguson, principal at Westmount, said the school is popular because it is not meant for gifted students but rather for those who want to direct their own learning. Unlike an alternative school, which has specialized programming, caters to a small group of children or is generally meant for students who would otherwise struggle in a regular school environment, Westmount is run like a typical high school, Ms. Ferguson said.

"We run in a lot of ways like a regular high school and still meet the needs of all different students in all different pathways. We have students who are going to college, university or straight to the workplace," she said.

"It's a strange school because when I walk down the halls, there's always kids in the hall. But as long as they are purposeful and they are heading from point A to point B, there's not a lot of issues there," Ms. Ferguson added. "There's a real focus on learning. There's a lot of empowerment for the kids."

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