Budding young gymnasts and soccer players have a champion at Ottawa’s two French-language school boards, which run specialized school programs to help them develop their skills.
But the programs, run in partnerships with sports clubs, also raise questions about equality of opportunity for children in publicly-funded schools.
The gymnastics programs offered by the Conseil des écoles catholiques du Centre-Est cater to children who train at two private clubs, Rideau Gymnastics in Kanata and Les Sittelles in Orléans. Students as young as Grade 3 are bused to the clubs daily, where they receive coaching as part of the school day.
For the soccer programs offered by both the French Catholic and French public school boards, parents pay fees of $250-$300 and $1,000, respectively.
Students in the specialized programs get top-notch training in a sport they love. School board officials say the programs promote physical fitness, take advantage of community partnerships, and in the case of gymnastics, make scheduling easier for busy families.
The programs cater to children whose parents are well-off enough to either enrol them in private clubs or pay sports fees to the school.
Boards across Ontario have long offered specialty programs in order to make their schools more attractive to families or help ensure the different needs and interests of students are met, said Annie Kidder, the executive director of People for Education, a public education advocacy group. The organization has done extensive research on inequality in schools.
However, specialty programs tend to divide kids along socio-economic lines, Kidder says. “The first question that has to be asked is: how do you ensure that this is fair and that it’s not dividing kids too early, if they ever ought to be divided?”
Public schools have an obligation to ensure they offer equal opportunity for all students, she said. Finding the balance between the individual needs and interests of students and the overall good isn’t easy, she acknowledged.
“They should ask: ‘Does everybody have access to this? How specialized do we want (students) to be?
“That is part of the job of school boards. They always have to keep the good of all the students in mind, and ask those questions first.”
While some high schools offer specialized sports programs, they are unusual in elementary schools.
Three of the four programs offered by the Ottawa French boards are starting this fall – the gymnastics program at Rideau and new soccer academies offered by both boards. The Sittelles gymnastics program was already in operation.
The gymnastics programs allow students to spend the last period of the school day at the clubs, then remain there to continue training after school.
That makes life a lot easier for their parents, which school board officials say is another major benefit.
Rideau Gymnastics founder Atanas Popov said many parents have to scramble or leave work early in order to pick up their children from school, perhaps take them home for a snack, then deliver them to the gymnastics club to train by 4 p.m. “It creates a nightmare for parents.
“Some families now, they bring me the child here, they bring another one to hockey, they are flying around. By the time they get home (at night) they are all exhausted.”
The program means children are done training earlier, since they start during the school day. Parents pick them up at the club.
Parent Johanne Dery said the program will be a “life-changer” for her son Alex, a competitive gymnast in Grade 8. Alex trains at Rideau Gymnastics for 20 hours a week. Last year she didn’t see him some weekdays until he arrived home at 8:30 p.m., she said.
He’s been in gymnastics since age six. “It’s his passion. He loves it, and he loves being here. It’s hard to drag him home sometimes.”
The program means Alex will be home earlier on school days, allowing for homework and family time, she says. “This is going to be a great opportunity for him to spend more time with us.”
So far 18 children are enrolled in the program that began at Rideau Gymnastics this week, said coach Carolyne Normand, who is helping organize the program.
The children train between six and 20 hours a week at the club. They are bused by the school board from École élémentaire catholique Roger-Saint-Denis in Kanata. (Except for two of the students in high school, who take OC Transpo.) They arrive by 1:45 p.m., when Rideau’s coaches begin their training, Normand said.
A similar program run in conjunction with Les Sittelles is in its third year of operation. This fall, 25 children from École élémentaire catholique d’enseignement personnalisé La Source in Orléans are being bused to the club for the program. Another six students in secondary school take public transport, said club general manager Jocelyne Legault.
The board does not pay the gymnastic clubs for the coaching or use of their facilities during school hours.
However, parents pay the clubs for training that takes place after school hours. Those fees are negotiated between parents and the club, said school board superintendent Jason Dupuis.
At Rideau Gymnastics, annual fees range from about $2,500 to $6,000, said Popov. At Les Sittelles, the fees range from around $2,000 to $4,000, said Legault.
Dupuis said the board has a charitable foundation that can subsidize club fees if a student wants to join the school gymnastics program but the family can’t afford it. This year two elementary children in the Les Sittelles program received partial subsidies, said Legault.
It’s not clear what the gymnastics program cost the school board. The board pays to transport students to the clubs in the afternoon. In addition, the board enlarged the catchment area for Roger-Saint-Denis to allow children from other schools to transfer there in order to participate in the gymnastics program. Those children would be picked up at home and transported to Roger-Saint-Denis in the morning.
When this newspaper asked for an estimate of the total transportation costs associated with the gymnastics programs, school board officials advised the paper to file a Freedom of Information request.
Both the gymnastics and soccer program reflect the importance the board places on physical activity and healthy lifestyles, said Dupuis. “Studies show that a fit student is a student learning properly in school, and they are developing lifelong skills.”
The board’s soccer academy that was to begin this fall at l’École élémentaire catholique Jean-Robert-Gauthier in Barrhaven operates differently. It’s held at school and doesn’t hinge on students already belonging to the Ottawa South United soccer club, which helped create the program.
Earlier this summer, board officials said about 25 students in Grades 4 to 6 were signed up, but were not able to immediately confirm this week when the program starts.
The plan was for students to spend an hour to an hour and a half each day at the academy, which would replace gym and art class, said a school board official. There would also be occasional field trips.
Subsidies are available for students who can’t afford the $250-$300 activity fee for the academy, said Dupuis.
Ottawa South United developed the curriculum for the academy with a teacher at the school, said Craig Stead, director of soccer operations and community engagement for the club. Officials from the club will visit regularly as guest coaches, he said. However, the teacher at Jean-Robert-Gauthier leading the program is certified to coach soccer at a high level, he said.
The program will also include lessons in nutrition, self-confidence and sports psychology, and will occasionally incorporate other sports for cross-reference, like basketball or handball, said Stead.
Ottawa South United decided to provide curriculum development and coaching services to the school board at no charge because the club has a mandate to engage with the community and create partnerships, said Stead.
Working with the fast-growing board is also a way to spread awareness about the club and the sport, he said.
“This was a great opportunity for us to create a formidable partnership with a school that was really engaged and excited to put a good program together.”
Stead said he’s not aware of another elementary school in Canada that has a similar soccer academy.
In the future, that may be the way the fast-growing sport develops players, he said. “It’s a case of we want to be progressive. We think it’s valuable so we are willing to invest the time and people resources into it.”
The program is open to all students, with no tryouts, but Stead said he expects those who enrol will already have played soccer.
“I don’t think most parents would sort of blindly put their kid into a daily soccer program without knowing if they were already enjoying it and maybe a little bit passionate about it. At least I hope not!”
Stead said he’d like the club to sponsor other events at schools, such as soccer fairs, to expose a larger number of children to the sport.
“Not every kid will want to be in the soccer academy, but we would like, with our long-term partnership, to be able to offer these events if schools are interested. It would help promote the soccer academy, so children are aware it’s available, help us with our presence in the community and support the benefits of participating in organized sport.”
The French public school board plans a mini-soccer academy that will begin Sept. 9 at École élémentaire publique Jeanne-Sauvé in Orléans for about a dozen children in Grades 4 to 6.
The children will be bused three times a week to École secondaire publique Louis-Riel in Gloucester, which has a sports dome. They’ll spend the last period of school – which is recess – training with coaches from a private soccer club, said school principal Brigitte Lepage.
The fee for the program is $1,000. That covers the cost of transporting the students to Louis-Riel as well as coaching, she said. Parents pick the children up at Louis-Riel after school.
The program is not aimed at elite players, she said, but rather is part of the school board’s philosophy to promote healthy, active living. “This program is not only for the best of the best. If you are motivated, if you like moving and you like participating, you can join.”
The program will not run five days a week, she said, because experts determined it wasn’t advisable for young children to train that intensively in a single sport.
She said the Conseil des écoles publiques de l’Est de l’Ontario is interested in partnerships with other sports organization. “We’d like to get the community into the schools.”