Patti Bacchus: VSB mini schools have a major problem

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      Hundreds of 12- and 13-year-old Vancouver kids will find out this week if they’ve made the cut to get into one of the Vancouver School Board’s (VSB) “mini” schools. More than half who applied won’t get one of about 600 available seats.

      The VSB’s 18 mini schools are spread across the district and, for the most part, operate as schools within a school. They offer enriched programs for motivated students, and some have a fine arts or sports focus. All require students to go through a competitive application process.

      Students generally apply for mini schools in Grade 7, when they’re 12 or 13 years old.  They’re required to write an entrance exam, which the VSB refers to as “the Test”. Students and parents never see the results, which are used to determine, in part, whether a student gets into a mini school. Other application requirements include grades six and seven report cards, letters of reference, work samples, and in-person interviews or auditions, depending on which program a student applies for.

      It’s similar to the entrance process for some of Vancouver’s elite private schools, which also screen who they accept. Or university.

      There’s high demand for mini school spots, and they often draw private-school kids into the public system. Many parents and students like that they enable students to pursue particular passions, while others tout the social and emotional benefits of the smaller, more intimate mini school groupings, in comparison to the larger general high-school populations.

      Students rallied at the VSB headquarters on West Broadway in 2010 to protest planned budget cuts that might have affected mini school funding.
      Georgia Straight

      Some claim that without having more challenging students present—say, those with special needs or behaviour issues—teachers can focus on motivated students who are ready and able to learn at a brisk pace.

      What’s the problem?

      I understand why people love mini schools. As a former school trustee, I know the backlash that comes with any proposed cuts to mini school staffing or budgets. Their supporters are many and they are fierce. They make compelling cases why these programs are so valuable, even a lifeline, for some students.

      The problem, however, is that we are talking about putting 12- and 13-year-olds through a rigorous selection process that advantages the advantaged in a public-school system that’s supposed to give equitable access to all students, regardless of their personal circumstances.

      Take, for example, the popular Byng Arts program at Lord Byng secondary in the West Point Grey neighbourhood. I have firsthand experience with it, as one of our kids was in the program. It has three streams: art (visual), drama, and music. Students who’ve had private art, drama, or music lessons are at a clear advantage in the competitive admissions process.

      Letters of reference may be included with applications, but you can’t ask a VSB staff person to write one. If you’ve had a private tutor, taken a course outside school, or attended an arts camp of some sort, there’s probably someone there who will provide you with a letter of reference to bump up your chances. If you’re just a poor kid who wants to learn to play an instrument, draw, or act, you may be at a disadvantage when it comes to getting into the program.

      And then there’s The Test

      Before applying to most of the VSB’s mini schools, students are required to write the VSB’s three-hour “mini school test”. The VSB says there’s no preparation required to write it and doesn’t provide sample tests with which to practice.

      The test is called the Canadian Test of Cognitive Skills, and the handbook it comes with strongly recommends letting students take a practice test in order to become acquainted with the format, which would be unfamiliar to many.

      The VSB says the test comprises three components: English, math and cognitive skills. The results are withheld from students and their parents, for reasons I’ve never understood.

      The Ideal Mini School is located at Sir Winston Churchill secondary.

      So each year, a bunch of nervous 12-year-old kids arrive at the VSB head office or other designated location to write a mysterious test they know nothing about without having had a chance to write the recommended practice sample. They will never know how they did on it, which is something that Vancouver parent Andrea Coutu says may not comply with B.C.’s privacy legislation.

      Coutu also shares many of my concerns about the mini school admissions process and sent the following to me in a message this week:

      “I have serious concerns about social equity. Some families make use of expensive test-prep services, coaching and tutoring to prepare for the exam and interviews. Just getting to the information nights, held in the evening throughout town, can be a barrier for transportation, child care, and work commitments.

      “Many parents do not have experience with university admissions and may not see how access to these enriched programs can put other students ahead for access to post-secondary. I’m concerned that [Individual Education Plans} and accommodations are not part of the process. Some schools ask for photographs to be included with the admission. They apparently prioritize gender balance but not the proportion of other equity groups.

      “Also, some programs have complex admissions processes, involving auditions and portfolios of materials not generally developed in regular school programming.”

      Well said.

      It’s a fixable problem

      If smaller groupings work better for some students than being part of the general population of your typical high school, perhaps we should consider organizing all students into smaller groupings, with whom they share most, or all, of their classes.

      Each high school should have a rich range of course options so that all students have a chance to study music, art, drama, or whatever they’re curious or passionate about, instead of forcing them to compete for scarce spots and opportunities.

      We should be encouraging young teens to try new things. Adolescence is a time of discovery and developing one’s identity. Why are we making kids compete for those opportunities, and creating winners and losers? What message are we sending to those hundreds of Grade 7 kids who will be finding out this week that they didn’t make the cut? Why does one have to demonstrate their math, English, or cognitive skills to be in a drama or music program?

      What does it say about the main school programs when there’s an elite, competitive-entry program running within the school? What does that do to the social dynamics? What does that say about inclusion?

      B.C.’s new high-school curriculum allows for more flexibility, meaning it can be enriched for those who are up to the challenge without a selection and streaming process. Advanced courses can be offered for those who want the extra challenge.

      Let’s make rich learning opportunities available and accessible to all students, not just the privileged ones who can jump through the hoops and win the mini school entrance award.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.