The Specialized Public School Debate

We are going through a fairly hot debate in our district right now around specialized schooling. The discussion has centred on a particular arts-based (our only one) elementary school, but if you look deeply, it’s really a debate on public schooling in general. Essentially, the question is:

Should public school districts offer specialized elementary schools (such as language immersion, arts, sports, technology, etc.) to students?

One side of the debate contends that families need to be given choice in the public system. One size does not fit all, and we need to cater to multiple needs. Many proponents of this view use anecdotes of students that were disenchanted or marginalized in mainstream schools, and were subsequently rejuvenated (for lack of a better word) in the specialized ones.

The other side posits that specialized schools leave us with less impetus to change what is wrong with our current system. Similar to arguments for universal healthcare, they contend that as long as people can opt out, there is no need to improve and evolve the status quo. Furthermore, the extent to which the arts, sports, gifted education, or technology is seen as a ‘specialty’ item shines a glaring light on their marginalization from mainstream schooling.

Interestingly, both sides will defend the importance of equity in the issue. The pro side says it is inequitable that families cannot choose a specialized school for their children. The nay vista argues the inequity of having to, in some cases, audition or be first in line for these schools (also noting how SES correlates greatly with a family’s ability to do so).

I’m likely not doing justice here to the nuances of the argument, so I’m hoping you can add your two cents or more. The reason I am blogging about this is because I myself am really on the fence with the issue, and am interested in sparking more discussion on it.

What are your thoughts on, and experience with, specialized public schools? What is best for the greater good?



  1. Morning Royan,

    One of the reasons districts offer specialized programmes is student retention. With all the choices available to students these days, it is in a district’s best interest to offer a programme that is not provided elsewhere.

    Just a thought to start things off.


    1. Hi Kent – I appreciate your comments on this debate. we certainly need more voices!
      Luckily in our district we are still growing so student retention is not a factor, although I believe low enrollment may have initially prompted the opening of this specialty program 25 years ago. And I can certainly see how it would be a factor somewhere like Toronto.

  2. I left a version of this comment on Chris Weir’s post about school choice, which is another form of this discussion: I’ve modified it, but I think the points are still relevant.

    While it seems offering specialized programs is a good idea on the surface it is not as easy in the implementation.

    My son is faced with a dilemma. Next year he wants to attend a high school with a better academic program for him which is not available in his community school. To attend this program requires a 45-60 min city bus ride, one way, every day on public transit with 2 transfers.

    He’s trying, with support, to balance, whether the cumulative inconvenience of a 90 mins daily commute is worth the enhanced program. He’s also interested in robotics, but the school with the robotics program, that he can choose to attend, is a 40 minute drive away. He has the option to attend these programs, but it isn’t really much of a choice at all.

    When I go to my store I can choose between 30 different varieties and flavours of pop. That’s real choice. The specialized programs system is like me going to the store for diet Coke and them telling me they have it but I have to drive to a store 50 kms away to get it. I’d quickly change stores, which I guess is what private schools and home schooling are all about.

    The best system would be having a wide variety of academic programs available to all students in their home schools so they are easily accessible to all, regardless of ability, commitment or resources. Maybe have the instructors rotate to the schools rather than students travel to the instructors (1 person travelling rather than 30 seems more efficient).

    Having specialized programs allows boards to say programs are available to students but puts the responsibility for access on families. This is unfair because not all families have equal resources.

    1. I love the pop analogy Andrew! Exactly!
      Your comment “The best system would be having a wide variety of academic programs available to all students in their home schools so they are easily accessible to all, regardless of ability, commitment or resources.” is exactly what we were aiming for with this policy. Its too bad we got taken off focus by the debate turning to our opinions on integrated arts. Its about so much more than that.
      Also I wanted to point out that we are debating only elementary programs so your comments about long bus rides and equitable access are even more significant. While your son has to weigh whether its worth it to take a bus across town to another high school- it is still a choice he can make. Elementary students could not safely make this choice therefore these programs are only available to student with parents who are able to drive them – there is a SES connection to who that leaves out. since there are no funds to provide busing like with elementary FI.
      Excellent comments.

  3. I agree with Kent that it may be more about student retention than anything else. Maybe, it’s time to step back and ask “what is the purpose of education”? If it’s to support a particular gift, then you have one answer. If it’s to “create well rounded citizens”, then you have another.

    It’s really timely to have this discussion in light of the NCAA Basketball championship that’s happening right now. The statistics about the number of students who leave college early for a professional career or those that attend college to play basketball with the hope of turning professional and failing are telling.

    I am far from a basketball player but during elementary school, I really enjoyed playing the guitar. However, that changed over time. I am glad that I took a general education that ended up supporting what I really wanted to do. Had I moved to a specialized music or arts school, I wonder where I’d be now. Hopefully, the parents that are involved in this process really weigh the impact that their decisions have for whichever decision they elect.

    1. Agree! Well I too hope that parents really weigh the impact of their decision, I worry that there is a notion that one “must get their kids out of their community school to a better one if they want them to be successful”. We are doing our communities such a disservice if they feel they are not well served in their community school. What message are we sending to our teachers in our community schools?
      There have been comments in the media that this specialty school is the only place kids can get away from bullies. Wait, what? While I agree wholeheartedly that we need to do a better job addressing bullying, I don’t think segregating kids is the answer. It needs to be addressed in every school.
      I like your example about NCAA.Not sure whether to laugh or cry.

  4. Hey Andrew,

    You have some good points in your post.

    I live in a geographically spread out district. However, if a student wishes to attend one of our specialized programs she or he can make bus connections from within our district. It may be a longer bus ride for the student but all have access.

    Can you clarify your meaning of access? Do you mean when they apply and how they are accepted? Or do you mean how they would travel to the magnet school? Thanks.


  5. We live in an urban area and the specialized programs are designated ‘Programs of Choice’, which means you are welcome to come, but the board is not responsible for transport. These are not programs which require testing or an IEP to enter (e.g. enrichment) but specialized sports programs, arts programs, science programs, etc. He is welcome to attend any program which is offered but has to find his way there.

    The urban board area is large and it takes quite a while to navigate it by public transit. I guess we could drive him, but that’s not v. practical. That’s what I mean by access.

    Interestingly, if attends the gifted HS program (with an IEP) the arrangements are the same. The only difference is the board pays for the bus pass. He’s still riding a city bus.

    1. Andrew,

      Thanks for the clarification. I see now the complexities of a larger urban community. Interesting “Programs of Choice” designation. Short of moving house, school selection, particularly for your son, provides some challenges.


      1. As Andrew said: “Providing a special program without access isn’t really providing it at all. It’s really then just an exercise in PR and placating stakeholders.” Exactly! I am finding great comfort in hearing from like-minded individuals on this.
        In our board most of the trustees represent urban areas. As a rural trustee I am often the single voice for kids who don’t have access to municipal transit. Its very lonely. 😉

        As to access – there are three types of access at the elementary level in our board:
        Universal admission – everybody who wants to go gets to go and is provided with transportation (i.e. home school, FI)
        IEP admission (this would include gifted who must meet accepted international criteria)
        and then the audition process that this one school employs which is not based on any norms.
        Can you see the problem? Unfortunately we only really hear form the parents in the program who don’t seem to think there is a problem.

  6. School choice is a great idea… In theory. Unfortunately, it does not help the system – it only helps those in larger urban districts for those students with access. Those students in rural districts or those who cannot afford to transport (either with time or money) are faced with a system that others are trying to move away from.

    True solutions do not shift students around but make the community school better. That is where our efforts need to focus. Andrew left a great comment on my post and people can read more there if interested.

    Much like the home school vs public school debate, choice schools and academies do not solve the problems of why people are looking at options outside their community school. Let’s focus our efforts there rather than on a market theory that pits one school against another… And in the end those without access lose out.


    1. I wish the trustees at our board could hear from the wise comments of the educators here. I love your comment in your blog Chris: “We often only hear the voices of those with the cultural capital to speak on behalf of their children and we don’t hear the voices of the marginalized” That is exactly what is going on in our board. That is all we are hearing and that voice is so loud, its hard to hear anything else.

  7. I would suggest looking at the experience of the UK public school system for the detrimental effects of school choice. Essentially, the issue of school choice is one drawn heavily along social class lines. Competition for resources (financial, students, teachers) creates “have” and “have not” schools with the more economically advantaged able to execute mobility to occupy the “have” schools while those less economically advantaged are left in the “have not” schools. The end result is schools which really struggle and produce very low educational outcomes on one end and ones that produce high educational outcomes at the other end with few in the middle. In the UK, this has taken place through choice of public school within borough/county/district, specialist schools and academies. I’d recommend the book ‘An Exclusive Education: Race, Class and Exclusion in British Schools’ by Chris Searle for a more in-depth look at the issue. On the surface, the discussion of specialist schools seems solely about meeting the interest, needs and passions of individual students, but I don’t think the unintended consequences that may come from providing that choice.

  8. I started an International Baccalaureate Programme at my secondary school five years ago, and remain its coordinator, so I suppose I have a perceived bias on this issue of choice.

    Students from all over our district are allowed to attend my school, as it is the only one with an advanced academic program like IB. We have a spread-out district, and it is difficult for some parents to get their students to school, but many make this sacrifice, based on the benefits of IB.

    Having said that, however, I would like to see fewer secondary schools, but with all of them offering all programs. I do feel for those parents who can’t get their students to my school, and thus cannot take advantage of IB; and, I also feel for those schools from which I often – without recruitment – take some of the top academic students.

    So, I think Andrew has an excellent point: all schools should offer the programs that students want, and that teachers know are valuable. And, as I said, one way to do this is to go against the orthodoxy of small secondary schools. A district like mine could offer so many more programs if they closed 2-3 secondary schools, and provided all transportation to the 2-3 large ones left. Just a thought.


  9. I want everyone, no matter what their resources are, to have access to a special program if they wish. In a ‘niche based world’, where everyone expects things personalized to their needs, the logistical problems this poses is what leads to the specialized schools model.

    Example: four schools have 7 students who want to have a specialized astrophysics program. No one school has the resources to offer this program but if they combine the students it’s possible, hence the specialized school. But centralizing makes it impossible for some to attend and so only some students have access. So there are no specialized programs and all of those students lose? Don’t like that either.

    Solutions? What about?

    1) Provide needs-based resources to some students. Prove you need it and the board will help you get to the program and support your participation(preferred scheduling, guidance, etc.) . The board will bus you or maybe set-up car pools where they pay one parent to transport a group of students.

    Even better:

    2) Leverage on-line and e-learning technology to offer this program to whoever wants to come in every school. Students show up in a classroom daily and listen to a lecture, share their work, ask questions. When they are finished they return and resume regular studies with their regular classmates. Once a week the special program teacher visits their school and conferences with them.

    Obviously #2 doesn’t work for all special programs (harder with arts based, impossible with sports based). The advantage that #2 has for me is that there may be students who don’t know they’re interested in astrophysics and end up taking it and loving. As Steve Jobs said “Sometimes people don’t know what they want until you show them”


  10. Thanks to everyone for contributing to this discussion. It’s really helped me form my own views on the matter, and I think I’m definitely leaning towards the nay side. It’s a strange one for me because I teach at a specialized school and my own children go to one, French Immersion (FI). In our district, FI is available to everyone with full bus service, so perhaps we’re talking apples and oranges here. Still, I think our conversation here goes to the heart of public education. What is it for? Who should it benefit? What is the purpose? Thanks again everyone.

  11. Thanks for starting the conversation, Royan!

    And similar in my district – the only two “choice” programs are FI and IB – and transportation is provided to the school the program is located in for those who choose those programs. Which means they would not be attending their community/zoned school.

  12. These are the Programs of Choice currently offered in my son’s school board. Thought it might help for some to see the extent of specialized programs in some boards:

    Elementary: Fitness and Wellness, Mandarin Transition Language, Arts & Global Ed, Single Gender Learning, Sports Academy, Basketball Academy, Hockey Academy

    Secondary: BioTech, Creative Communications, Media Arts, Fitness and Wellness, Global Citizenship, Global Connect, IB, Manufacturing, Outdoor Ed, Robotics, Social Justice, Sports Academy, Performing Arts Academy, Basketball Academies, Hockey Academy, Basketball Academy, Football Academy, Tennis Academy, Visual Arts Academy

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