|Independent Schooling in British Columbia
Greg Bitgood – Heritage Christian Schools
Private schooling (more commonly called independent schools in Canada), like all education in Canada, is very different from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. The majority of independent schools fall into two categories: schools intended for college and university preparation and schools with a strong religious identity. There are, of course, many schools that specialise in other areas, such as fine arts or special education, but these schools represent a very small percentage of the independent school movement. Most of the higher-end academic or prep schools are be found in major population centers throughout Canada. Like most aspects of independent schools, the state of religious independent schools varies greatly from province to province. For example, Ontario and Alberta provide public funding for Catholic schools at close to the same rate as regular public schools, while Quebec has a very high rate of participation in independent schools and subsidizes some schools that meet the province’s strict criteria for funding. The four western provinces have a higher number of independent schools per capita because of provincial funding agreements with schools. Across Canada, there are several accreditation organisations that oversee independent schools. At present, the Canadian Accredited Independent Schools is the largest accreditation body.
When it comes to online education and independent schools, almost all the activity to date can be found in Ontario or British Columbia. For example, the Virtual High School–Ontario is an online program designed primarily to supplement students’ traditional learning that offers Ontario accredited courses for tuition. This is not to say that independent schools aren’t taking advantage of online solutions and blended learning. In Ontario, a group of sixteen high-end academic schools have come together to create the Conference of Independent Schools eLearning Consortium, a repository of online courses and learning solutions. However, like many other aspects of K-12 distance education, it is British Columbia that is leading the way when it comes to online independent schools, largely due to the unique relationship that independent schools have with the British Columbia Ministry of Education.
Independent schools in British Columbia receive funding from the Ministry of Education at a 50% ratio to public school funding. However, unlike the independent brick-and-mortar schools, most of these distributed learning programs do not charge tuition. Brick-and-mortar schools must charge tuition to make up the 50% funding gap, whereas independent distributed learning schools—which are often competing with public distributed learning schools for students—are able to operate using only the 50% provincial funding they receive from the government. This has created some concern among public school educators who have relied on the public option of always being “free” as a counterpoint to sending students to a private independent school. In the distributed learning world, public schools are no longer able to compete solely on the price to the student’s family.
Like any K-12 school in the province, independent schools in British Columbia must follow the provincial learning outcomes closely in order to receive this funding from the government. At present, there are fourteen independent schools in British Columbia that are designated as distributed learning or distance education schools, nine of which have a religious focus. There are also three additional applications for distributed learning programmes with the Ministry of Education, and two of these are religious schools. An example of these religiously focused distributed learning independent schools are the Protestant-based Heritage Christian Schools. Like many of the other religious distributed learning programmes, Heritage started as a brick-and-mortar school. With expansion throughout British Columbia, Heritage found similar Protestant students and families who were seeking non-traditional school options through distributed learning or online education.
In 2009–10, independent distributed learning schools represented more than 21% of all distributed learning enrolment in the province of British Columbia, and this number continues to grow each year. This ratio far exceeded the proportion of independent brick-and-mortar school enrolment in the province, which was approximately 11% of the total K-12 student population. Furthermore, the independent distributed learning schools represented 6.8% of all independent school enrolments in 2009–10, whereas the public distributed learning schools only represented 3.1% of the total public K-12 enrolment for the same year (Ministry of Education, 2010). These numbers also do not include the cross-enrolment of public high school students. Cross-enrolment is where students are enrolled in one school, in most cases a brick-and-mortar school, and take one or more courses online from a distributed learning school. Throughout the province, independent schools are cross-enrolling about 18% of those students who are also enrolled in brick-and-mortar schools.
These numbers reveal the significant impact that independent distributed learning programmes are having within the British Columbia educational system. One distributed learning student in five is seeking education through independent school options, while only one in 10 is looking for a brick-and-mortar independent school option.
One of the primary reasons that distributed learning is so popular among independent school students is because of the unique way in which distributed learning independent schools have connected with the home-schooling community. In 2004, independent schools were granted permission to offer the complete accredited British Columbia curricular program through distributed learning. Each year as the enrolment numbers increased for independent distributed learning, the number of home school registrations has decreased; the last two years have seen a decrease of 9% in the number of home school registrations. Additionally, home school registration has declined by almost 50% over the past 10 years. Many of these students have elected to complete their studies through independent school distributed learning programmes.
At this time, there are three programmes that have enroled more than 500 full-time equivalents (FTE), and all three have also cross-enroled a significant number of students. The three programmes are the Traditional Learning Academy in Surrey with 645 FTEs, the Self Design Learning Community in Creston with 1,342 FTEs, and Heritage Christian School in Kelowna with 1,698 FTEs. These figures do not include the cross-enroled students, which can be significant in some instances. For example, along with the 1,698 FTEs, Heritage Christian Online School also has an additional enrolment of more than 2,500 students who are enroled in one or more courses with the programme.
Heritage Christian Schools is not only the largest independent distributed learning school system in British Columbia, it is also the largest distributed learning school—public or independent. There are other public school distributed learning programmes that have more student enrolments than Heritage, but those numbers include the students who are cross-enroled. Heritage Christian Schools has a full online course curriculum, starting from grade 5 through grade 12, which includes a number of Advanced Placement (AP) options for a total of over 110 full online course offerings. The full-time programme of students from Kindergarten to grade 12 is what sets Heritage Christian Schools apart from many of the distributed learning programmes in the province, both public and independent. For example, in 2010–2011, the school enroled 145 full-time Kindergarten students, which far exceeded any other distributed learning school.
Heritage attributes this success to an elaborate management system that tracks every student’s progress down to the individual learning outcome. This allows each teacher, along with the students themselves, to use a variety of resources that in many instances cannot normally be implemented in a traditional programme. Each student’s learning can be customised for an individualized experience, which is one of the reasons why Heritage has also become one of the largest special education schools in the province with 187 funded special education students. Younger students generally use a variety of paper-based, home-school-style curriculum. Teachers work closely with parents to create an individualised programme of instruction for each student. The school has also developed an online student management system that allows teachers to match every provincial learning outcome to the students’ individual learning and curriculum. Heritage also licenses their curriculum to other distributed learning programmes, both independent and public, throughout British Columbia and all across Canada.
Ministry of Education. (2010). 2010/11 Summary of Key Information. Victoria, BC: Author. Retrieved from http://www.bced.gov.bc.ca/reporting/docs/SoK_2011.pdf
 See http://www.ciselc.com for additional information about the CIS eLearning Consortium.