The Hot New Trend in Summer School Classes

Summer school enrolment is booming across the country – even though our students are doing better than ever. Find out what's driving keeners to year-round learning.


Photography by Carlo Mendoza

A few years back, summer school pretty much meant one thing: that you had flunked a class and had to make it up in July if you wanted to advance.

Summer school was an unwelcome thwarter of fun and warm-weather plans, and an inveterate denier of unforgettable weeks at camp and summer vacations. But that doesn’t sound like the four weeks of social studies that 16-year-old Sahil took last July.

“Summer school is a blast—especially if you have a couple of friends join in with you,” says the Grade 11 student from Edmonton. Not only was it a great way to stay in contact with friends, but, with multiple schools coming together for the summer session, it also provided him with a fantastic opportunity to meet new people—girls among them, of course.

Sahil—who has long-term plans to go into engineering—says that summer school is also a key part of his ongoing academic success. “Grade 11 is a tough year,” he says. “I figured that I have other marks to worry about, and thought, why not get at least one subject over with? That way, I could focus on math and physics this past school year.”

Sahil is just one of thousands of students across Canada who are willingly signing up for summer school. And while a decent number of students still use it as a chance to retake courses, these days, summer classrooms are also often filled with academic strivers, including advanced placement and international baccalaureate students seeking to lighten their school-year course load.

They’re either getting a hard course out of the way, or checking off a compulsory one in order to make more time for their desired focus—be it academic or extracurricular in nature. Along with the growing number of students using summer school as an opportunity to get ahead, there are those who are having a bit more fun—taking outdoorsy courses and even brushing up on skills, courtesy of the wide variety of non-curriculum courses offered by a number of boards, from playing tennis to writing poetry to painting landscapes.

Why Canadian Teens Are Eager to go to Summer School
With changes in attitude and a wider availability of courses, it’s not surprising that many boards are seeing a significant boost in summer school registration. In the Edmonton Public School Board (EPSB), for example, summer school enrolment is growing rapidly. Summer school course completions have risen by 20 per cent since 2010, and enrolment has spiked five percent in the last year alone.

Further west, at the Vancouver School Board, approximately 17,500 students—out of a total of 54,000 students—sign up annually for July programming across 10 secondary and seven elementary sites.

Students like Sahil are now the norm rather than the exception, and that demand is driving boards to expand their summer offerings, says David Jones, an EPSB principal with more than 15 years of experience as a teacher and administrator in the summer program. “Even a decade ago, there wasn’t a lot of choice. But summer school has evolved over the years because of the learner desire,” says Jones, adding that a wide variety of students come through his doors during the summer.

Still, the summer school momentum hasn’t caught on everywhere. At the Halifax Regional School Board, where 48,000 students are spread across 5,000 square kilometres, summer learning numbers remain small. Limited to math and English courses, summer school is offered at just one site to students who failed to earn a credit or those looking to boost an existing grade.

Summer School’s Not Just for Core Classes Anymore
Summer school programs can vary widely from board to board, but English-as-a-second-language courses are very popular in many of the larger boards, and students often come from around the world to enrol in these types of programs. And there are some board-specific trends as well.

In Edmonton, for example, Jones notes that more middle school graduates (those finishing Grade 9) are taking summer school before they get to high school, helping to ease the transition before the full-time start in September while also getting a compulsory course out of the way. The Edmonton board is also home to a number of Olympic-calibre athletes, who create more time for their intense training schedule by studying in the summer. And Jones observes that phys-ed is one of the board’s most popular offerings, in part because it’s mandatory and students see it as a good one to check off in the summer.

Though gym classes taken during the school year may offer a wider variety of activities, there’s no denying the warm weather helps balance the scale. “Because we don’t have the snow and cold, most of the activities take place outside the gym—they go golfing or play tennis, or even go hiking in the hills,” he says. “There is that advantage—and, my gosh, it’s a nice one.”

Teens Can Try Online Learning
Trevor, a Mississauga, Ont.-based Grade 11 student, says summer school is seen as an opportunity, rather than a consequence. “It’s a chance to fast track, to get ahead—like night school or private courses.” But rather than going those particular routes or even opting for the traditional summer program, Trevor, then 15, took a mandatory civics and careers course online during the summer between Grades 9 and 10.

Online learning is an increasingly important part of many school boards’ summer offerings. At Ontario’s Peel District School Board, which operates 12 physical sites, online learning now comprises more than 10 per cent of summer school programming. For Trevor, a student trustee who is also involved in many activities, it was an opportunity to pick up the credit without sacrificing his position on a competitive soccer team or having to scrap a long-planned vacation. But studying independently on the Internet and corresponding online with the teacher isn’t for everyone, and Trevor says he didn’t enjoy the crisp clip of the course. “Everyone’s moving at a very fast pace—it’s almost like accelerated learning.”

Kids May Learn Better on an Intense Schedule
Trevor may be the exception. Although it may sound counterintuitive, the truncated structure and faster pace of summer school in general actually benefits many or even most students, says Mary Ellen Dewar, principal of Chinook Learning Services, which is responsible for some of the summer school programming for Grades 10–12 at the Calgary Board of Education. Summer school classes typically last around half a day and run for about four weeks. A lot of content is jammed into that time frame—one week is the equivalent of a month in a regular classroom.

The benefits to that intense schedule include the ability to focus on just a course or two. “We know a lot more now about adolescent brain development than we did 10 or 15 years ago. Time and place are important for adolescents—as is learning in small chunks,” says Dewar, noting that the summer school program leaves time for students to do other things such as work part-time or get involved in extracurricular activities.

Despite a diverse mix of students, Dewar says that they see nearly universal success. “They come for a variety of reasons, but they’re all pretty keen to be here. And students who are not successful at any other time of the year are highly successful over the summer—we have a success rate over 90 per cent,” she observes.

Back in Edmonton, Sahil is looking forward to heading back to summer school in July for the next level of social studies. “I would definitely recommend it to other students,” he says enthusiastically. “It’s an amazing opportunity. In fact, I encouraged a lot of my friends to take Social 30 with me this summer—and most of them have already signed up!”

Summer School’s an Opportunity for Innovative Learning
On the West Coast, the Vancouver School Board (VSB) is using summer school to explore innovative learning. While it offers core classes for students retaking credits and those seeking to fast-track, the VSB course catalogue goes well beyond the typical, says Rob Schindel, the board’s director of education responsible for summer school.

In the VSB’s preview program, he notes, both elementary and secondary school students can take a short version of a semester-long program, before committing to the full course during the regular school year. They can also brush up on a wide range of skills, including conversational French immersion, yoga, poetry, tennis, essay-writing, painting, fashion design and even robotics.

Students don’t earn actual credits for these classes (and they also require a fee, usually between $85 and $330), but they offer additional opportunities to flex some intellectual muscle or get creative juices flowing before the rubber meets the road during the regular school year. It all adds up to a summer school environment that’s both dynamic and diverse. “It’s wide-range and accessible,” says Schindel. “We have students from all backgrounds.”

Tim Johnson never went to summer school, but sometimes watched documentaries in his parents’ basement during summer months.

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