Rehabilitation mission for neighborhood schools

The Marguerite-De Lajemmerais Public School, in eastern Montreal, lost dozens of students every year. So much so that in 2018 almost half of the property was vacant. This high school has gone to great lengths to win back the hearts of students and their parents. The establishment, which was one of the last on the island to accept only girls, has become mixed. And an outdoor program has been drawn up.

The effect was immediate: the students returned to this once neglected neighborhood school. The number of registrations for next autumn is 20% higher than four years ago. Seven outdoor groups have been created this year and ten (with nearly 300 students) are planned for the 2022-2023 school year.

The youngsters, who grow up in an urban area near the Olympic Park, like to play outside. They went mountain hiking in the Laurentians, downhill skiing in the Eastern Townships, snowshoeing in Maisonneuve Park. They tell with shining eyes how happy they are with “walking in the mud” and shoulder to shoulder with rabbits, sheep, deer…

It’s really the pleasure. We have all kinds of adventures

“It’s really the pleasure. We experience all kinds of adventures”, says Juliette Bolduc. The teacher Christian Provost, responsible for the outdoor program, is expected to retire in 2023. He decided to stay. “It’s so motivating that I don’t want to stop,” he said, meeting a group of students in the rain.

An ambitious project

This Montreal high school isn’t alone with new programs that appeal to young people. Hoping to curb the exodus to private and public schools with specific projects, the Center de services scolaire de Montréal (CSSDM) has launched a major project to upgrade its so-called “regular” schools.

The goal is for all students to have access to specific programs, such as arts, sports or science, in their neighborhood school. These opportunities should be offered to all young people, regardless of their school results or the income of their parents. Other service centers, including the Chênes service center in Drummondville, are also following this path.

“The general idea is that wherever you are in the area, you will have a good range of services in your area,” summarizes Benoit Thomas, responsible for the CSSDM’s 32 secondary schools – the largest service center, which 10% of students in Quebec.

“We want everyone to have an option,” he adds. Quietly, the term “normal” will disappear. It’s a big change. We want it to be supported by the school team, with the help of our administrative center, so that it meets the needs expressed by the families. †

For twenty years now, these special projects have usually been reserved for children with the best grades or from the most underprivileged families, which causes major inequalities, the Higher Education Council noted in 2016: the most underprivileged students can be found in these elite programs, so that young people with a disability disadvantage or learning difficulties are overrepresented in ‘normal’ classes and schools.

Students and staff are fleeing these so-called ‘normal’ schools, which have a bad reputation. Parents look for schools, even if that means sending their children across town. The CSSDM has calculated that 45% of its high school students attend a school outside their neighborhood. We should add that about four out of ten students, in Montreal and Quebec, attend a private secondary school.

To reverse this trend, the CSSDM has decided to improve the programs of eight unpopular high schools as a priority. The Marguerite-De Lajemmerais school, which now offers an outdoor concentration, is one of those institutions entitled to a new lease of life (even if the school already offered solid programs in music, arts and sciences).

Outdoor sections have also been constructed at the Saint-Henri School in the southwest and at Louis-Joseph-Papineau (LJP), in the Saint-Michel district. The most notable novelty at LJP is above all the program in environment and urban agriculture, accompanied by a greenhouse, in this district that is considered a food desert.

Programs in art and music (Jeanne-Mance and Honoré-Mercier schools), Objectif Monde (Dunton Academy), cinema (Chomedey-De Maisonneuve school), digital technology and robotics (Pierre-Dupuy school), and many more. Other options are also part of the improved offer of these neighborhood schools.

Need a push

The creation of these new programs is a step in the right direction, but the original goal was much more ambitious, says former school commissioner Violaine Cousineau. She was part of the committee responsible for assessing the service offerings of secondary schools at the CSSDM.

The “options” in arts or sports implemented in these eight schools generally consist of two or four 75-minute periods per nine-day cycle, she emphasizes. It’s better than nothing, but she says the public system needs to do better.

“We are far from theater schools like Robert-Gravel, music schools like Joseph-François Perrault or gyms like Édouard-Montpetit, says Violaine Cousineau. A particular project is more than an hour adding left and right. †

Violaine Cousineau is convinced that the Ministry of Education should launch a large-scale project to improve and promote public school programs. It must become as important as renovating schools. This ambitious plan requires a “firm political will”, because it is expensive, to create new programs: it is necessary to hire staff, buy musical instruments or sports equipment and develop competition platforms. And aim for these options for free as much as possible.

Tania Genzardi, director of the Marie-De Lajemmerais school, is racking her brains to get funding. The non-profit organization Sport et loisirs de l’île de Montréal has donated money to buy backpacks, snowshoes, crampons…. Others are needed for bicycles, ski tickets and transport to the mountain. Quebec also funds equipment and operations. And the School Foundation provides valuable financial support.

Professor Michel Janosz, Dean of the Faculty of Continuing Education at the University of Montreal, guided the service center in this “ambitious change of course” in favor of co-education. He is convinced that special projects tailored to the students represent the path of the future – and even of the present – ​​in education. Even if it means going gradually, like the CSSDM does.

“Young people need their learning to have meaning. Generation Z is coming to university. The sense of exertion is so important to them that they are ready to follow other trajectories. They say, “I’m not interested in a baccalaureate degree where the first two years don’t make sense. I’m going elsewhere.” For me, it’s inevitable that schools will adapt to these notions. It’s already started,” he explains.

Michel Janosz cites programs developed in the United States to prevent dropout. “In these schools, which are very effective, students and teachers choose a sphere at the entrance, such as the arts. The content of the program is the same for everyone, but you will have educational activities colored by your preferences. †

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