Summer school in North Vancouver attracts academic keeners

Summer classes in both North Van and West Van school districts hugely popular

Carson Graham Secondary was a busy place on Monday morning, with a quiet hum of conversation coming from the classrooms.

In Murray Bulger’s chemistry 11 class, students stirred a milky liquid substance in beakers, turning the combination of common ingredients into soap, through a chemical reaction.

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Down the hallway in science 10, student Nicole Nielsen, 15, was researching the theory of multiple universes for a final project. “I’m really interested in the big picture of the universe,” she said.

In the atrium area, an English teacher was going over the mechanics of the expository essay – introduction, body, conclusion – and how to stay focused during provincial exams. Outside, students sat in the shade, fanning themselves with papers.

It’s been warm in the classrooms during the recent heat wave.

But for the month of July, that’s where approximately 1,100 North Vancouver students have been spending their mornings. They’ve given up beach time and the chance to take off for camping trips with friends to sit in class.

Summer school – once regarded as a punitive sentence to be avoided at all costs – is today hugely popular. “We are full to the brim,” said Kathleen Barter, principal of summer learning for the North Vancouver School District.

In West Vancouver, it's a similar story. Over 1,400 students attended summer school during July in West Vancouver and over 800 of those spent their time at West Vancouver Secondary, focused on academic high school subjects, including math, science, English and social studies.

The vast majority of students at summer school are there because they want to be.

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Romina Sanii, 17, reads out load to the class. Beside her are Lynette Yu, 17 and Ava Sadaghianian, 17. All are students in the popular summer school classes at Carson Graham. - Lisa King

Both the North Vancouver and West Vancouver school districts operate several different summer school programs, including elementary school programs geared to social skills and self-regulation, as well as programs for English language learners, for French Immersion students, for kids transitioning to high school and more traditional “review and completion” courses for students who have struggled in math and literacy at the grade 8 and 9 levels.

Among the most popular, however, are full-credit courses, where academic high school subjects – sciences, English and social studies – are taught in an intensive, compressed one-month time period. Students are in class from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. every weekday in North Vancouver (West Vancouver has a similar schedule); there’s a hefty load of homework and little tolerance for those who are late or absent.

“You have to be really committed,” said Victoria Jackson, 17, a summer school student who will enter Grade 12 in September.

In contrast to the old stereotype of summer school, many students taking summer classes now are academic high achievers. Some are taking extra science classes they want for university admission that they might not otherwise be able to fit into their timetable during the regular school years, said Meghan Burns, one of the vice-principals of summer school in North Vancouver. “Math and science are heavily subscribed,” she said.

That’s the case for Selena Smith and Alexandrina Nicolaescu, both 17, who are entering Grade 12 in Carson Graham’s International Baccalaureate program and taking physics at summer school for university admission.

Others want to lighten their course load so they can do better in their remaining classes or lessen their stress levels.

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Students Danesh Irani, 15 and Eilia Zandi, 16, work on a soap-making experiment in the Chem 11 class during summer school at Carson Graham. About 1,100 students attended summer school in North Vancouver this year, many of them seeking to get ahead in their course work. - Lisa King

Kaylan van der Marel, 17, has done that several years in a row to get math and science credits out of the way.

Others want an advance preview of the classes they intend to take again during the regular school year.

Another thing summer school offers is the chance for students to really focus on one subject, rather than having their attention split between several.

Jackson, who took English 12 this summer, is one of those students. “I wanted to dive deeper,” she said.

In the past, a perception that summer school allowed students to earn an easier mark was another reason kids enrolled. But no more, said Kathleen Barter, principal of summer learning for the North Vancouver school district, who overhauled the summer learning program in recent years. “People are earning their A.”

Summer school students admit there are some things they give up by attending classes in July. “You can’t really go on vacation,” or start a summer job, during that month, said Smith. But they also gain a unique perspective.  “The environment feels completely different” to the regular school year, said Smith.

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Andrew Choi, 17 and Eric Cavallo, 17, read along with the class at Carson Graham's summer school. - Lisa King

Summer school teachers also notice that change.

“The classroom dynamic is really different,” said Shaun Myers, who taught English 11 at summer school this year and teaches law and social justice at Windsor during the regular school year. “The social hierarchy is eliminated.”

Kids from different schools are thrown together and “they aren’t the kids they’ve known forever. . . It’s a different vibe.”

Teacher Peter Bond, who taught science 10 at summer school and is a science teacher at Carson Graham during the regular school year, says because they spent such intensive time together, teachers also get to know their students really well really quickly. Both Bond and Myers, who’ve been teaching summer school for about a decade, add summer school allows them to be more innovative as teachers, compared to the regular classroom.

Teachers apply and are hired on one-month contracts for summer school assignments. This year, 52 teachers taught summer school in North Vancouver.

Costs for summer school are covered under school districts' regular operating budgets, funded per course by the ministry of education. B.C. students pay a $150 deposit to register in North Vancouver, which is refunded at the end of the course. International students in North Van pay between $625 and $1,250 to attend.

Today is the last day of classes for this year’s summer school in North Vancouver, with some provincial exams wrapping up tomorrow. Programs in both school districts wrap by the end of this week.

Students who chose to spend part of their summer studying say it’s worth the trade-offs.

Jackson said since school only goes until 12:30 p.m. she doesn’t think she missed much. “That’s when a lot of teenagers wake up,” she said.

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