High skills major programs growing at schools

January 11, 2010
Posted By Karena Walter, Standard Staff

The transition from ruling the school to being at the bottom of the rung is exciting but nerve-racking for many Grade 8 students.

hirteen-year-olds Ashtyn-Brooke Briscall and Michelle Beniac said they've heard stories about getting lost in hallways, being pushed into lockers and receiving heaps of homework.

There's so much pressure on Grade 8s going into high school, Briscall said she's writing her speech at Prince of Wales School about it.

One of the major decisions the Grade 8 students have to tackle is choosing a school.

"I'm drawn towards (Laura) Secord because of their arts program and they have a good staff," said Briscall, who likes drama, but is also considering Holy Cross for sports.

Beniac, who wants to take visual arts and music, is also eyeing Laura Secord, which is close to home and where her brother attends.

Since both girls are interested in the arts, Laura Secord may be able to woo them further with its new specialist high skills major program in arts and culture.

While students have to be in Grade 11 to participate in specialist high skills majors, schools are promoting the programs to Grade 8s as they weigh which school to attend.

This week, students and parents can expect to hear about a growing number of majors offered by public and Catholic boards during high school open houses.

In four years, the specialist high skills major programs have grown from 20 students to more than 600 students in the District School Board of Niagara alone.
The programs have core requirements and allow students to concentrate on a specific interest, such as construction or hospitality. Their math, science and English classes have learning units reflecting the subject being focused on.

Kevin Graham, technology consultant for the District School Board of Niagara, said the majors provide students with a chance to really become involved in an area. They learn skills by working in the field through co-op placements, such as building a house for Habitat for Humanity or running a restaurant out of Fort Erie High School.

"They are really unique programs that stretch the student a little bit, that give the student the opportunity to say, 'I am good at this, I can do this and this is what I want to do for a career,' " Graham said.

But it also gives them the opportunity to realize a specific career path may not be the right one for them, explained Colleen Fast, specialist high skills major facilitator with the public board.

"If they go into a high skills major program because they think that's what they want to do with their future career, and they find out that they don't, it's still a success because they've figured that out in high school still, instead of wasting their time when they get to college or university."

Fast said there are 29 high skills major programs running at 17 schools in the District School Board of Niagara. The board has applied to the Ministry of Education for more programs for next year, including in business and agriculture.

The specialist high skills major program in arts, which began this year at Laura Secord, has partners including Shaw Festival, Brock University, Niagara College, Sheridan Institute of Technology, Niagara Symphony and Carousel Players, among others.

Principal Karen Simpson said the program was a natural fit for the school already involved in the arts.

"The benefit is that our industry people will begin to realize that this diploma with the red seal on it means our kids are experienced in whatever area their high skills major is in," she said, adding they'll have experience through co-ops. "Employers out there know they are getting a well-trained individual."