Despite fears that a school for children whose parents do not have university degrees would stigmatize low-income students, the DSBN Academy will be nearly full when it opens for the first time next week.
"I know my son has the confidence to say, 'We're not a poor school, we're school of kids who want to do better than their parents,'" said Charlene Swayze, whose 11-year-old son, Vincent, will be entering Grade 6.
The DSBN Academy was envisioned by staff at the District School Board of Niagara as a way to get at-risk students into college and university, and it will open at nearly full capacity, with 124 students in Grades 6 and 7.
Students will come to the school in Welland from all over the Niagara Region. Some will be bused from communities as far as 50 kilometres away, arriving in time to sit down to mandatory breakfasts at 8:15 a.m. and mentoring sessions.
After school, students will attend tutoring sessions or elective courses in things like robotics, art, choir and community leadership.
"Creating an entire school with a culture that aims for postsecondary education, it feels like a teaching utopia to me," said Jennifer Jinks, the school's French teacher.
But Ms. Jinks and the other DSBN staff will be putting in longer days than their colleagues at regular schools. They will attend the morning breakfasts and lead the after-school tutoring and elective sessions, which will wrap up at 4:15 each day. Parents will also be asked to contribute 15 hours of volunteer work each year.
The result is a school populated and staffed with people deeply committed to giving students a leg up, in a community that badly needs it: Only one in five people in Niagara over the age of 24 has a university education, compared to one in three throughout Ontario, and the school board serves about 5,400 students who live in poverty.
Although community members and educators supported the idea of extra help for high-needs students when the plan was announced, they expressed concern that those children would have to be singled out to receive it. At one heated school board meeting, a local parent said DSBN Academy had already been nicknamed The Poor School.
A 40-per-cent dropout rate among black students prompted Toronto to consider an Africentric school. The controversy over that school has died down, and two years after it opened, some of the school's loudest critics have acknowledged they were wrong. Enrolment is booming and students posted scores well above average on last year's province-wide math and literacy tests.
It remains to be seen whether the DSBN Academy can actually increase the number of at-risk kids getting university degrees. Lack of higher education doesn't necessarily make a family low-income (officials decided against having an income cut-off), or put a child at risk of doing poorly in school and not continuing to post-secondary studies.
"The admission criteria raise the questions as to whether this school going to end up servicing the kids who are most at risk," said Kevin Gosine, a sociologist at Brock University.
He questioned whether the resources poured into busing students from all over the district to a specialized school might be better spent on more widely available supports. But the keen response from parents– the school board had to turn some families away because they didn't qualify – has softened some of the academy's toughest critics, including Dr. Gosine.
"I think it's a noble initiative," he said. "We'll have to watch and see."