The choice of a school for your child used to be limited to issues of geography and your interest in French immersion or Roman Catholicism. Today, it resembles a digital television lineup: Would you care for a skateboarding school, or are you a fan of the fine arts, music or science? Perhaps a Muslim or Mandarin school is more to your liking? There's a school for you.
This fall, new public education offerings across Canada include an all-boys school in Calgary and a Niagara-area school hoping to boost economically disadvantaged kids.
The product of about a decade of tinkering, public education's new-found taste for niche programming seems to be insatiable. And while it's emboldened by new thinking from education experts, the trend is largely driven by parents' hunger for their children to be more engaged in school, to improve academically or to tap into a particular skill or interest more fully.
"Parents were telling us quite clearly they wanted more choice," says Cathy Faber, the superintendent of learning innovation at the Calgary Board of Education. "They weren't confident any more that the one-size-fits-all model worked. From our side we already knew that it didn't work."
For kids who are struggling academically, schools such as Toronto's Oasis Skateboard Factory, which opened in 2009, and the DSBN (District School Board of Niagara) Academy in Niagara, opening this fall, aim to re-engage them. At Oasis, students design and market skateboards while following the provincial curriculum. At DSBN, kids skip shop in favour of more reading and math in the hopes of getting into university. Other schools cater to the gifted or sporty sets. The trend has become so big that Edmonton, for example, has 37 alternative schools (as well as independent non-profits that operate under the term "charter school" through an agreement with the provincial government).
After years of studying the latest theories on how boys learn differently than girls and how they might be better served in the classroom, Calgary school principal Garry Jones is about to put those ideas – including more activity, different kinds of books and more male teachers – into practice at Sir James Lougheed School, the city's first all-boys public institution.
"I'm so excited I can hardly stand it," he says.
Eighty students are already registered for kindergarten to Grade 5.
"I'm hoping we can pass on what we learn to other teachers," Mr. Jones says. "We know that, in general, boys have more energy and have a harder time sitting in the classroom. By Grade 3 or so they do more poorly in reading and writing."
But as the country's education model morphs from the old factory style of learning to this more consumer-based model, critics worry we may be moving too fast to know where we're going.
Research on both charter schools and public all-boys schools is "a mixed bag," says Lance McCready of the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Some schools engage students and promote strong grades. Others don't, he says.
Early results from Toronto's two-year-old Africentric Alternative School are promising, he says, despite criticism that many of the kids are middle-class and may have done well anyway.
Prof. McCready has been involved in a research project led by New York University on single-sex schools in the United States with kids mostly from disadvantaged backgrounds. One, Chicago's Urban Prep, which selects students by lottery, graduates a huge percentage of its students, who go on to university. It's now expanding to create more schools in a kind of educational franchise. "But not all of them are Urban Prep," he says.
While he's philosophically in favour of specialized learning, Prof. McCready, who teaches urban education, says that in practice there are stumbling blocks. Some schools end up teaching in remarkably mainstream ways, "only the demographics are different." And some of the snazzy promises made at the outset can be trimmed due to tight finances or a need to prepare for standardized provincial tests.
Like many experts in the field, Prof. McCready says letting specialized or alternative schools proliferate may not be wise.
"On some levels they should be evidence-based," he says. "I don't think you should just say, 'I have an idea,' and get public money to form a school. That being said, there has to be some room for innovation."
Parents are the driving force behind this trend.
Mr. Jones says that in early consultations, many Calgary parents were convinced that the new all-boys model was suited to their sons, many of whom were having issues in their home schools. Indeed, even when directly told that research into the academic and behavioural successes of public all-boys programs was very hard to pin down (some schools with better results have private-school-style admissions, so they can select promising students), parents still asked for one.
"The answer was that Calgary parents wanted us to have it," Ms. Faber says. "We showed them the research and they said that's what they preferred."
Despite the seeming disconnect, Ms. Faber says having parents on board may be as important as research into learning outcomes. "When parents are actively engaged in their children's learning, the success stories are there. We have to do more to engage parents."
But what, then, happens to the kids left behind? Annie Kidder, executive director of the advocacy group People for Education, worries about the erosion of the public education system as a pillar of Canadian society, a model of social diversity.
"Over the last few decades the education system has a harder and harder time balancing those purposes with our individual desires for our kids and a growing individualism in Canada," she says. Increasingly, middle-class and upper-class kids migrate to these schools, she says, and their parents know how to work the system and navigate entrance exams and essays if need be.
Ms. Kidder says this as a parent who juggled the same diverging motivations. Her daughter, now 19, attended an arts school in Toronto. She recalls the feeling she had when she checked out the other parents at early information sessions at alternative schools.
"This is when I became a self-hating yuppie, or whatever," she says. "You look around and everybody is the same, basically. They talk a lot about social justice, but when you look at who's there, we're a very exclusive bunch of people."
Ms. Kidder says the experience was "fabulous" for her daughter, who told her at the time that she thought it was wrong, too, and wished all schools could be like her school.
There's also the reverse critique, which you wouldn't wish on any child.
Mr. Jones says that while he doesn't yet know the complete profiles of his new students, he's aware of the view that schools like his might become "dumping grounds" for difficult boys.
"We won't know that for a couple of years," he says. "It's hard to tell whether a boy is struggling in school because they have a genuine learning disability or whether it's the program."
Many educators say taking the time to assess and reflect will be the way to ensure the public system stays balanced. Edmonton's school board, for one, is putting a moratorium in place for new schools until September, 2012.
So how is a parent to choose?
"You really have to try and get a sense of the curriculum and resources," Prof. McCready says. "You have to do some research. You can't just be swayed by a theme."
Editor's note: The original version of this article incorrectly stated the number of alternative schools in Edmonton. This version has been corrected.