Nestled off West Mall in the heart of the University of British Columbia is a small wood-paneled three story building that houses one of the Vancouver School Board's most dynamic learning environments - the VSB/UBC Transition Program.
It's a place whose alumni include the head of Microsoft's Extreme Programming division, a 20 year old entrepreneur generating millions of venture capital for innovations in electronic communications, and a young Assistant Professor of Philosophy at UBC with a doctorate in Classics from Oxford.
The level of accomplishment is palpable.
Lining narrow corridors are a dozen posters and displays detailing colourful and detailed history, science, mathematics and literature projects. The somewhat cramped interior of the school's two classrooms are filled with 20 students in each of the two years of the program.
As a BC Ministry of Education Provincial Resource Program, enrollment is open to academically gifted students Grades 7 to 9 from across the province. A multi-faceted comprehensive review process helps students ascertain readiness for early entrance to university studies. The program's conceptually advanced curriculum and diverse instructional models bring students and teachers together on a unique learning journey of radical academic acceleration. Learning experiences emphasize development of higher level thinking skills and habits of scholarship and integrity. At the same time staff and parents work together to help students prepare themselves for the social and emotional challenges of entering university at a young age. The average university entrance age for these students is 15.
Initiated in 1993 by the Vancouver School Board in partnership with The University of British Columbia, the Transition Program started with seven students at University Hill Secondary. Unique in BC and Canada, the Transition Program is often referred to as the "best kept secret in education".
The Program affords students the opportunity to explore career pathways and develop their talents and abilities while participating in local and international field trips focused on global citizenship and environmental stewardship.
The best part of the program according to the students, is meeting peers that share similar interests and passions about learning. According to the Program Coordinator, Dr. Daria Danylchuk, friendships forged in the intense struggles of transition, blossom through university and continue on through career pathways as evident at the Transition Reunions of 2005 and 2010.
One of the students who entered the program last year is Alec Theriault. He was 14 and had successfully completed Grade 8 when making the leap from private to public, he chose to enroll in the University Transition Program. He says the Transition Program suited his love of abstract math, chemistry and debate, but also fit the bill when it came to his social needs.
At his previous school of Theriault says he felt it was easy to get lost in the crowd. Finding help in such a situation was a challenge to say the least. Life could be lonely. The Transition Program, however, was different.
"It's a whole different mindset here," says Theriault. "Everyone here wants to learn. If you're having difficulty with something you have a safety net made up of all your classmates to help you."
Making the leap from elementary to university isn't an easy process. Some gifted students have only needed to put in minimal efforts to achieve impressive results for most of their academic life. The Transition Program is a whole different kettle of fish and it can be a shock. The program is loaded to the brim with intensive and enriched instruction in Math, English, Physics, Biology, Literature, History, Humanities, Chemistry and other core subjects. Students also have the opportunity to audit university classes and experience UBC firsthand with frequent "campus visit" days. The university's high-tech and world-class labs are open to Transition students. In short the UBC world is their oyster.
Conspicuously absent from the program are typical student favorites like drama, physical education, art or music courses. Teachers and administrators say there just isn't the time, resources or space at the program to accommodate such opportunities. Students are encouraged to pursue their passions and develop their talents beyond the classroom. Typically Transition students are working at very high levels in these areas, for example, completing the ARTC in piano while enrolled in the Year One, and continuing with competitive swimming and performance dance such as ballet, jazz throughout the two years of the program.
Jamie Zagoudakis, English teacher with the Transition Program, says success in this program requires students to clarify priorities and organize time.
"Students must choose earlier how to use their time in order to excel in academics and get to university in their mid-teens," he says.
Zagoudakis applied for the position to teach Humanities, Literature and English six years ago. He'd been an English Department Head at Tupper Secondary for years and was ready for a new challenge. He says instructing at this level is both demanding and rewarding. Just preaching from a textbook won't cut it.
"You need to be able to enrich the subject with stories and a wide-range of background material," he says. "You also need to be able to blend curriculum subjects. It can be as much of a challenge for us teachers as it is for our learners."
One of the principal tenants of the program is to challenge students to pursue rigorous and intensive learning goals, to take on challenges the like of which they have not previously seen and from the perspective of an academic environment that is more like university than high school.
Beginning at 9am and in blocks of 75 minutes duration, it's a steady stream of core subjects until 3:15 pm hits. Many of the students then practice for the popular inter-scholastic competition "Reach for the Top" or Model United Nations. Then it's home to eat dinner and another 4-5 hours of homework to get caught up and ready for the next day. It can be a grueling pace, especially when students are not used to planning their time nor disciplining themselves to overcome procrastination and video gaming habits. Students also learn how to budget time for extracurricular activities like team sports, gymnastics, piano lessons or just hanging out with friends.
New applicants and their parents hear the same message from staff, current students, graduates, and parents every year. Success requires motivation. Students need to choose to enroll in the program and to want to take on the challenges that will prepare them for successful university studies.
You might expect that the place would be a downer or isolating, but all students spoken to stressed that it's the exact opposite.
While the program is intensive, the intensity also creates a strong bond among classmates. Students feel accepted and there is a comfortable and thoughtful gravitas that pervades the small classrooms. Students still laugh and giggle, but not at each other.
One student, when asked how he felt about the school commented: "I'm a weird kid. But here, I fit in. You can actually be who you want to be here and no-one questions it. If I went to a normal high school, I don't think that'd be the case."
Theriault echoes these sentiments.
"Before I came here I never really fit in with my peers at school," he says. "But here you don't feel isolated. Together we've created a true sense of community."