It’s often said that experience is the best teacher. Nowhere is that more evident than in the 710 progressive Ontario secondary schools currently offering students Experiential Learning initiatives such as Specialist High Skills Majors (SHSM) programs. In the Wellington Catholic District School Board (WCDSB), there are 17 of these programs at St James CHS, Our Lady of Lourdes CHS and Bishop Macdonell CHS, across 10 sectors, ranging from Social, Financial & Health Services to Technology & Skilled Trades.
SHSM programs are designed to help prepare Ontario students for success and improve their academic achievement, and in the process, equip high school-aged participants with the skills needed for post-secondary education or employment opportunities.
“Anything we describe as experiential involves opportunities for students to get out of the classrooms and to be exploring their pathways,” said Nicholas Brown, Co-op Coordinator and SHSM and Technological Education Board Lead with WCDSB. “We provide experiential learning opportunities from K-12, accessing opportunities for students to go to places like Conestoga College to see what a day at college looks like. The colleges and universities are amazing at opening their doors to us.”
Across Ontario, nearly 54,000 students are involved in SHSM programs. Co-operative education, being an integral part of SHSM, relies on the exceptional partnerships participating school boards have developed with various employment sectors. In the WCDSB, that has translated into nearly 300 high school students participating in these programs. These are not mandatory programs that students have to take; instead, they’re offered as electives, which gives students a choice of any individual pathway they would like to explore during their high school years.
“The hands-on experiential programs are part of their elective streams,” explained Brown, who says many school boards have established an Experiential Learning Lead in an effort to promote experiential learning from kindergarten through grade 12. “We have a database of centrally managed co-op employers. Students in grade 11 and 12 can access the database and choose from a wide spectrum of options, from auto mechanics to working in large animal care clinics, observing and assisting in operations on large animals like horses. They get to experience what it’s like to be in a real workplace, to get out of school and learn to engage with people in the community.”
Brown says such out-of-classroom educational experiences also help students to develop strategies to overcome anxiety and to learn to function sociably in the world. In a job market where making a career choice is becoming increasingly difficult, participating in experiential learning has an additional benefit. “It provides students with an opportunity to try out a career idea, so they can see if it’s something they’re interested in pursuing further.
“Part of what students get are certifications that are recognized in the greater community,” said Brown. “For example, our students come out of any of the SHSM programs with full certification for first aid and CPR training. Students focused on construction may acquire Working at Heights or Fork Lift certification. Our hospitality students may get food-handler certification. They are all eligible to get mental health and wellbeing certification as well. The SHSM program has evolved to the point now where colleges and universities are starting to acknowledge the SHSM designation because students who successfully complete the program graduate with important job-ready skills. As a result, some are being offered scholarships and bursaries.”