Cancellation of Norwell’s Grade 9 performing arts class draws opposition

APP program helps students develop artistic talents in theatre, music, dance, visual arts

PALMERSTON – A petition calling for the reversal of a decision to cut a performing arts course at Norwell District Secondary School is gaining steam, but local school board officials say the decision won’t be reversed in time for the next school year.

The decision to not to offer the Grade 9 Arts Performance Project (APP) program in the future has some parents and students concerned about the impact on students and the school’s culture.

“You only have so much money, I understand that. But is it one hundred per cent absolutely necessary that it has to be Grade 9 APP that goes?” asked ,” said petition organizer Maggie Moore, whose daughter participated in the program this year.

“When we’re talking about kids’ mental health we talk about things like equity and we talk about things like community involvement, and we talk about things like diversity … that program encompasses all of those things.”

The Grade 9 APP program was launched along with a hockey skills program in 2015.

A Grade 11 version of the APP program, which is slated to continue, was added the following year.

The APP program is a joint-credit course that originally involved Grade 9 students spending time at the Drayton Festival Theatre, as well as in regular English classes.

The association with the professional theatre company was later dropped, but the program continued to offer students a chance to develop artistic talents in theatre, music and dance.

The Hockey Skills Development Program, also aimed at Grade 9 students, is continuing at the school.

It offers a combination of on-ice sessions with professional instruction in the sport, while students earn physical education and Canadian geography credits.

Both programs are part of a Specialist High Skills Major education pathway that allows students to focus their learning with specific career paths in mind.

When the new programs were introduced, then-principal Paul Richard said it was, in part, about keeping students engaged.

“These kids coming up have grown up with the ability to have endless experiences, multi-tasking online … We’ve got to address the idea that these kids can multi-task,” he told the Advertiser in a 2014 interview.

Moore said the program can be a confidence builder for some students entering high school for the first time.

“Grade 9 is a tough transition year … being able to go in there and be around people who were also really into (performing arts) was very helpful,” she said.

“Also, from a parent’s standpoint, the fact that for half a day, she was with that one teacher, it’s not as scary as having to go around to the whole school … it’s a little more nurturing.”

Norwell graduate Abigail Wiens was among the first Grade 9 APP students during the program’s inaugural year.

Currently studying biology and physics at the University of Waterloo, Wiens said her interest in theatre began in elementary school, through her involvement in school musical productions.

When the opportunity to take a dedicated course in high school presented itself, she jumped at it.

“It just it sounded so interesting and so appealing, the chance to do a little bit of performing, learn a little bit more about the arts,” she told the Advertiser.

“I was also really passionate about music at the time, and I still am, so it was just a chance to get into more arts that was really appealing to me.”

It was, she recalls, a “wonderful” experience.

“I not only learned more about performance and that kind of stuff, but really working together and communicating well with others was a huge centre stone … I feel like just getting the opportunity to interact with people so frequently and working together with people, was something I would get from no other class.”

Wiens said many elements of the APP program helped her in other areas.

“I think it’s totally applicable to other aspects of different classes and life in general,” she said.

The school community will lose “more than they realize for sure,” if the program ends, said Wiens.

“I think they have such a one-of-a-kind program and such a unique way to captivate students that they’re going to lose here.”

She added, “I think they they’re going to feel the loss in camaraderie among students and just communication levels of students with being able to work with each other, because you gained so much more than just an education in drama and a little bit of music and art.

“You’ll lose so much more than just the in-class experience.”

During her Grade 12 year, Wiens volunteered with the Grade 9 APP program as a co-op student and had a chance to watch the younger students “really come into their own.

“You grow as a person when you learn how to express yourself, which is really what you’re getting a chance to do,” she explained.

A petition containing nearly 900 signatures online, and more on physical copies, states the benefits of the APP program include:

  • attracting students from other districts who are interested in a specialized arts program;
  • acting as a feeder system for annual Theatre Norwell productions; and
  • attracting new teachers interested in working in arts programs.

In addition, the petition states, the program creates a ripple effect, including enhanced community involvement.

“Since Grade 9 APP feeds Theatre Norwell, this has a ripple effect on others areas of school life. Beauty and the Beast 2023 brought in over 1,700 parents, grandparents, and community members in four sold-out shows as well as over 900 elementary school kids. How many other programs do that?” the petition states.

While Moore said she has been assured by school officials the Theatre Norwell program will continue despite the loss of the Grade 9 APP program, she said accepting that requires a leap of faith.

“And if a teacher, a good teacher, who is providing that program then retires or moves on … and that interest isn’t there and developed … then those programs dwindle and then they get cut,” she explained.

The petition states school officials have pointed out the Grade 11 APP class is still running. However, it notes that program is about show production, rather than performance.

“So, how long will this course last if there are less performers coming through and less interest is generated in year one?” the petitioners ask.

Norwell principal Francis Noventa declined an interview with the Advertiser and referred questions to Upper Grand District School Board communications manager Heather Loney.

Loney stated in an email that the Grade 9 APP program “has not been cancelled.

“Rather, the difficult decision to close sections across several different subject areas was made this year due to low student enrolment through the course selection process,” Loney stated. “The APP2 senior course is proceeding as usual.”

Loney added students in Grade 9 “are still able to access both English and drama courses and have access to music and visual arts courses.”

Noting the provincial education ministry funds courses for 23 students per section in this type of class, Loney stated the number of students who expressed interest in the APP program “was significantly below that.”

Loney declined to release information on how many students had signed up for the course next year due to privacy considerations, “since the school is relatively small.”

However, Moore said she learned through her inquiries that 19 students had signed up for the program.

She is encouraging members of the school community to express support for the program by signing the petition or by other means.

“Call the school or call the principal, call the superintendent. Express that you are concerned that they are making cuts to things like the arts and especially … during this time, when we’re very concerned about kids’ mental health,” she urged.

Loney said restoring the Grade 9 APP program for the next school year is not an option at this point.

“Course selection processes with students have been completed and timetabling for next year underway,” she stated.

“In order to complete staffing processes and timetabling process, we will be proceeding with the current course sections for the 23/24 school year.”

However, she noted, “If sufficient student interest through the course selection process occurs, the course could be offered again in future years.”