When school let out for summer at Bellerose Composite High School this year, hundreds of students stayed behind, taking advantage of summer classes to boost their marks and improve their options.
Long thought of as a punishment for those who fall behind, summer school has more and more become a mechanism for students, not to catch up, but to get ahead. And that extends to students who are just entering high school.
Many of the students running laps and throwing dodgeballs in Bellerose’s gym this summer are incoming Grade 10s, who are getting a credit out of the way before they even become full-time students.
“I wanted more time to free up my schedule during the year, because I am moving ahead and doing physics in the second semester,” said Jordan Kozuska, who starts her first year at Bellerose next fall.
Classmate Austin Mace said taking the mandatory gym course now will make next year easier and open up other possibilities.
“I can fill that up with another option that I want to do.”
Summer school enrolment has been on the rise in St. Albert over the past few years. Bellerose alone has 500 students, compared to a regular enrolment of around 1,100, taking any one of a dozen summer courses the school is offering.
The trend cuts across St. Albert public and Catholic schools, with both seeing rising numbers. Edmonton Public Schools is seeing the same trend, adding about 200 more summer students each year for the last three years.
With one eye on a lopsided game of dodgeball, teacher Marc Swerda said most of the students are like Mace and Kozuka, looking to get their gym requirement out of the way early.
“Some of them may go on and do Phys Ed 20 or 30, but a lot of them just want to get the courses out of the way so they have room to take more academic courses.”
Swerda, who teaches both summer school and the regular calendar, said during the summer the students have less stress and less to focus on.
“The overall mood and atmosphere is a little bit more relaxed than it is during the year,” he said. “I don’t think they have that same pressure, where they are thinking about three due dates in one week.”
The noise in the gym is in direct contrast to the near silence of the principal’s office. Krysta Wosnack, the school’s regular counsellor, becomes principal for the summer, but few students get sent her way for discipline issues.
“The kids who do summer school generally want to be here,” she said. “They want to be here for five hours and then leave, they don’t want to be hanging out and causing problems.”
Outside her office, the hallways are largely empty with just a few flip-flop clad students taking a break in the cafeteria. Most of the students in the halls during the summer seem to be headed to class, studying for class or on their way out the door.
Wosnack said summer school isn’t the last refuge that it was once seen to be.
“I don’t think the students have that idea, I could see that the parents and our older generation thinking that,” she said. “It is more acceptable at the student level to be doing it.”
Cara Mazur, principal of the Catholic division’s summer school, hosted out of St. Gabriel’s storefront school, has the same experience.
“They are really focused, they are all doing their own thing and they are all really engaged.”
She said over the last number of years there has been a 25-per-cent growth in summer school enrolment. More than 400 students are taking summer classes in the Catholic division this year and many are taking more than one class; most are also getting ahead, not catching up.
“We found that 70 per cent of them were trying to accelerate to create flexibility for their schedule.”
Many students take the course to free up room, especially in their senior year.
“It is good to get a jump start on my year, especially my senior year, because I will have less of a workload,” said Matti Thurlin, who is taking physics and religion ahead of his last year at St. Albert Catholic High School.
Workload can be a problem in summer school, because courses ordinarily covered over five months are compressed into just a few weeks.
Mike Hutchings’ Physics 30 class covers a couple of decades worth of discoveries in just a few hours, taking students through black-body radiation, the photoelectric effect and all the equations and math around both in just a few short hours.
Using light bulbs, tennis balls and a Velcro glove, Hutching walks students through these concepts, plus a sidetrack into Albert Einstein’s relationship with the atomic bomb.
“They have to write a diploma exam in a few weeks and they have to know the material well enough to be able to write that exam,” says Hutchings. “The pace that we are going at is immensely faster.”
Wosnack said summer-school teachers have to factor in their students’ attention spans. One of her math teachers took kids to a grocery store to talk about percentages and surface volume, rather than teach in the classroom.
“The teachers have to tailor their lesson plans in such a way that they can keep it interesting for the kids and a little more interactive.”
Mazur said she finds the summer school model requires experienced teachers who know how to keep a class on course and focus on the most important concepts.
She said the St. Gabriel model also works really well in summer, because the students can access the online study material the school uses for outreach programs.
“There is a wealth of online material that the teacher has set up for the students.”
Hutchings said because of the speed, the students have to do about a week’s work every day, which can means four, five or even six hours of homework.
“Not many students can do an academic course in summer school, they find it a struggle to keep up,” he said. “Not many people have the discipline to do that when it is 35 degrees out.”
The pace combined with the homework means a test on material every few days rather than every few weeks.
“If you don’t do what you need to do and procrastinate for a week, you have no chance,” said Hutchings.
Koltin Glimm is taking Physics 30 in summer school, because it is a tough course and he found taking Physics 20 during the school year difficult.
“It was challenging during the year, because I had other things I had to balance with it, and so taking one class I can focus on just the one class.”
He said the compressed nature of the course does make for more work, but he also finds benefits.
“Since you learn it all in a short time, you seem to absorb it more rather than learning it over five months.”
Also in Hutchings’ class, Braden MacIver has found the same thing.
“When you are taking less courses it allows you to focus more on the other courses you are taking.”
Going into his last year of high school, MacIver said he wanted the option of taking spares and is willing to trade part of his summer to make that happen.
“When you have a four-core semester it is hard to jump back from one subject to another,” he said.
Plus, MacIver adds his summer schedule had time for physics.
“I would sleep till 1 p.m. anyway, so I sacrifice a little sleep, but it is really not that bad.”