Ontario offers many regional learning choice programs for elementary students heading into middle school. Finding a program that keeps your child engaged and empowered can help avoid some of the academic pitfalls of the transition from elementary to middle school. It may seem like a lot of pressure to apply for a special program when your child is in elementary school, but there is research that suggests that working with motivated peers in a challenging environment can keep students moving toward success.

It’s important to keep up student interest when transitioning to middle school.

Programs for students interested in STEM include the Middle Years Programme of the International Baccalaureate and the SciTech program. Students whose interest in STEM is entrepreneurial would thrive in the International Business and Technology (IBT) program.

The Middle Years Programme from the International Baccalaureate (IB) is the program designed for students from ages 11–16. It’s a 5-year program, but in most Ontario schools this program runs from grade 6–8, which is common for the curriculum. This program introduces students to a cohort of highly-motivated peers working on learning that is attached to real world applications, in addition to following Ontario’s standard curriculum. There are 8 subject areas for students to focus on, and they must spend at least 50 hours on instruction in each area. The areas include: language acquisition, language and literature, individuals & societies, sciences, mathematics, arts, physical & health education, and design. The IB Global Research department has studied the impact of their Middle Years Programme and found that IB students were “on-task” 87% of the time, compared to 73% of the time for general education students. That equates to 8.4 minutes more time on task per hour, and almost an hour for a whole day of school.

The sciences and mathematics programs will be most interesting for STEM students, but the middle grades are also a time to develop core competencies in a wide range of subject areas. Language, design, and social sciences (individuals & societies) are helpful to even the most die-hard STEM enthusiast. Communicating your ideas and seeing how they impact others is crucial for any field. Global contexts and critical thinking are all core components of the Middle Years Programme.

Being accepted to the IB Middle Years Programme does not guarantee acceptance into the IB Diploma Programme in secondary school. However, students who study in the Middle Years Programme will likely be better prepared for the Diploma Programme if they’re not ready to move on to something else.

For a more hands-on experience, students can choose a Sci Tech program. This program also follows Ontario curriculum standards but focuses on technological inquiry, including robotics, coding, 3D printing, and video editing/animation, where facilities allow. The program focuses on stewardship, competence, and insight as driving ideas for inquiry-based education. Where the standard curriculum would build one model or test one application, the sci tech program spends much more time on complex building projects and invests more time in hands-on activities. Students build and then re-design based on feedback so they can continuously improve their designs. Students in SciTech often compete in local competitions like the Beaver Computing Challenge at the University of Waterloo.

Just like the IB Middle Years Programme, being placed in the SciTech program in the middle years does not guarantee placement in secondary regional learning choice programs. Similarly, not getting into the elementary program does keep a student from being accepted into the secondary SciTech program. The two are independent of one another.

Students who like to innovate may thrive in the IBT program.

A program that combines technology with entrepreneurial skills is the International Business and Technology (IBT) program. Students are encouraged to have their own device to use daily for hands-on, collaborative learning with a business focus. In this program, technology is used to further business inquiry and facilitate risk-taking like public presentations and videos. There is less focus on the nuts and bolts of building and designing as there would be in the SciTech program, but if your child loves to design new plans or innovative responses to problems, the IBT program might be a good experience. Marketing, social media, and communication are big elements of this program as well.

Applications for Elementary programs are due at the end of January in the Peel Region, but check your local school for details. Information sessions are being held now. Here is a link from the Ministry of Education for finding your elementary school: https://www.app.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/sift/index.asp Admission is often based on marks and feedback from grade 4 and 5 teachers, among other factors.

For competitive programs, any student who meets the requirements for special elementary programs is put in a drawing for a place in the program. Your child could meet all the requirements and do well on the assessments but still not get a place in their chosen program. These are situations to remember that such programs are helpful and interesting but not deal breakers for your child’s future.

Since the elementary and secondary programs of choice are not linked, families might consider layering special programs to target the interests of their children. For example, an entrepreneurial STEM student might benefit from the IBT program in middle school and a more comprehensive Advanced Placement or IB program in secondary school.

Choosing a special elementary program is a balancing act between your student’s interests and inclinations and their emotional and social wellbeing. Your child’s happiness and motivation is the most important metric for making educational decisions in the middle years.

Supportive coaching helps keep student interest alive.

At Zebra Robotics, students can start learning about STEM as early as grade 1, with the basics of coding, robotics, and technology. Being involved in competition helps keep students invested in learning and can bridge the achievement gap between elementary and middle school. For more information, see www.zebrarobotics.com.