The TDSB academies program is used to fill out schools with declining enrolment, such as Heather Heights Junior Public School.

TDSB academies offer specialized learning experiences

Scarborough programs include vocal music, girls' leadership

Fifteen students stand in three groups across their classroom, waiting for teacher Fiona Hopkins to count them down.

“3… 2… 1—”

Barges, sung by Heather Heights Junior Public School students

One group starts singing the first lines of Barges, a traditional campfire song. The other two groups follow, creating a layered chorus.

The class consists of 11- and 12-year-olds, most of whom are wearing cartoon sweaters. But rhythm, melody and harmony are already familiar to these Grade 6 students at Heather Heights Junior Public School, near Ellesmere Road and Scarborough Golf Club Road.

The school is among nine chosen for the Toronto District School Board’s new academies program. The project launched this fall with five specialized learning modules, including sports, fitness and boys’ leadership.

Two Scarborough schools are participating, including Heather Heights vocal music academy.

“It’s all about giving choice to our parents and students,” said principal Brian Bennett.

The academies launched in September after two years of planning. The programs let the board offer new learning opportunities while filling schools that face declining enrollment.

Music is a great way to help a student’s achievement. The self-esteem and confidence you get from performing transcends to all the things you do.

-Brian Bennett, principal of Heather Heights P.S.

For parents who can arrange transportation, it is a unique learning experience that boosts their children’s enthusiasm.

“It’s great to have a group of students so interested in what they do,” Hopkins said, adding that she has never had more enthusiastic students in over 15 years of teaching.

That same energy can be found at the girls’ leadership academy at Highland Heights Junior Public School, near Kennedy Road and Finch Avenue East.

“I’m very pleased with how it’s been so far,” principal David Williams said. “The girls are enthusiastic about being there.”

The program highlights positive female role models and encourages its 22 students to think critically about the role of women in society.

At each academy, students complete a separate course in the program’s topic, while integrating it into other courses. For roughly 50 students in the vocal music academy, this means putting a poem in English class to music, or composing a melody from concepts learned in science class.

“Music is a great way to help a student’s achievement,” said Bennett, a Scarborough native who graduated from the Royal Conservatory of Music. “The self-esteem and confidence you get from performing transcends to all the things you do.”

Both Scarborough academies welcome students from Grades 4 to 6, though they plan to branch out to Grades 7 and 8. If programs have more applicants than spaces, students will be selected through a random lottery system.