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'Really disappointing': B.C. children in limbo after admission to gifted program paused

Avery, who was reading at a university level when she was in Grade 2, has big plans for her future. However, the closure of a gifted program is creating challenges for her education path.

A B.C. family is grappling to find adequate education for their daughter after admission to a long-standing gifted program was paused. 

From a young age, Kristin Hopkins knew her child was special. 

“She started talking before she could sit up,” says Hopkins. “So that was our first clue."

When Avery was tested in Grade 2 she was already reading at a university level. Now, she’s 12 years old and exceeding past children her age but has struggled in public schools. 

“We have a lot of challenges,” says Hopkins. “Profoundly gifted children have challenges with social emotional needs that are just not met in the regular classroom.”

By Grade 4, Avery was taken out of the public school system after suffering anxiety attacks and feeling isolated without a group of friends. 

“Gifted sounds great, but it comes with so many challenges,” she says. “For profoundly gifted children, it's a disability, but in the right environment, and with the right nurturing, it can become a superpower.”

The family had their sights set on sending Avery to the University Transition Program (UTP) and hoped she would be challenged in a supportive environment, but admission was halted for the 2024 school session. 

"The University Transition Program was this shining beacon of hope at the end of elementary school and to have it threatened and try to be taken away is really disappointing,” says Hopkins.

The program is funded by B.C.’s Ministry of Education and Child Care and run at the University of British Columbia (UBC) by the Vancouver School Board (VSB). It's been running for three decades.

UTP accepts a maximum of 20 students — between the ages of 12 and 15 — each year. The goal: complete high school in two years, and get their Dogwood Diploma. The program also prepares students for early entrance into university. 

A review of the program is currently taking place, leaving the family concerned about what's next. 

"I think the unknowns of what's going to happen is very stressful,” says Hopkins.

Avery too was optimistic she would be able to attend UTP.

"I would really like to go to the UTP so that I can be more challenged, and so that I can reach my full potential and be able to learn more about the stuff that I like a lot,” she tells Glacier Media. 

When asked what she’d like to be when she grows up, she’s quick to respond. 

"I definitely want to be some kind of biologist... so that I can make things like medicines and vaccines for maybe autoimmune diseases,” says Avery. 

'No presupposed outcomes' of the review

In a statement to Glacier Media, the Ministry of Education and Child Care says it is committed to providing students with supportive and enriching educational environments.

The ministry says the current program will continue for students already enrolled.

Hopkins is worried pause on admissions might lead to a full shutdown of the program and her daughter won’t be able to attend.

"They need to restart admissions so that this program doesn't end up getting shut down,” she says. 

Vancouver School Board associate superintendent Alison Ogden says no decisions have been made at this point.

“There are no presupposed outcomes of this review, no decision at this point has been made. We really want to ensure through that independent review, that we are supporting students and their overall well-being and their experience,” says Ogden.

She adds a range of concerns were brought forward but due to privacy she could not elaborate on what they were.

“But I can tell you that we were really concerned and felt it necessary to undergo an independent review to really be able to look at that and make sure that we're moving forward and supporting students and learning,” says Ogden. 

In the written statement from the ministry, the admissions pause is being called a "proactive" step due to significant concerns about interactions within the school community that have impacted the mental health and well-being of some students.

"The Ministry of Education and Child Care, the University of British Columbia, and the Vancouver School Board take concerns related to negative impacts on students’ mental health and well-being very seriously,” says the ministry spokesperson.

The formal review will explore the perspectives of current students, families, staff and alumni, according to the ministry. 

"All of these groups will have the opportunity to participate and have their voices heard, which will help gain a deeper understanding of specific issues and opportunities related to this program,” the statement said. 

Online petition started

An online petition with nearly 1,000 signatures is calling for admissions to the University Transition Program to open.

Glacier Media was told the people who created the petition are alumni of the program and are currently enrolled at UBC. 

Three of them agreed to speak to Glacier Media but asked for privacy as they’re currently in the close-knit community. 

The students explained the pause on admissions has created confusion and has impacted those currently in the program.

"It also further disrupts the culture of the program, which is heavily dependent on mentoring and cross-connections between the two cohorts of 20 students, which will also mean a reduction in experienced and specialized teaching staff,” says one of the students. 

The group says the petition is a "rallying cry" to preserve the program. The students also echoed Hopkins' concerns, saying many of them have struggled in public schools.

"These students also experience higher rates of dropping out, depression, and anxiety, for those reasons,” they said. 

Being in the program allows the students to make long-lasting bonds, be challenged in their academics and have a community that understands them, they said.

Another student says they’re grateful for the opportunities the program provided them and they want others to have that experience. 

"It gave us the opportunity to be in an environment where our unique abilities are celebrated and not curtailed, and our weaknesses supported.”

The students tell Glacier Media there is space for improvement within UTP and welcome a review by the tri-partnership behind the program: the B.C. Ministry of Education, UBC, and the VSB. 

Review results will be shared

The ministry says parents and students can reach out to their local school districts with their concerns or for additional options for children’s education.

"School districts throughout the province provide a variety of educational experiences for students with a gifted-learning designation,” says the ministry. 

VSB says the formal review will be finished in June.

“We're committed to making sure that we are sharing the results of the review with the community,” says Ogden.

Hopkins, meanwhile, plans to turn to online learning in the interim to keep Avery challenged. She'll soon graduate from Choice School for Gifted Children, a private school in Richmond.

"I think that a child should be able to get the support and education they need in the public system without having to turn to a private system,” says Hopkins, noting if Avery was in the public school system she'd be put back into a regular Grade 8 stream and forced to relearn many subjects again.

Hopkins hopes bringing attention to the issue will create enough support for the program and they’ll reopen admissions soon.

"I hope that she is happy in whatever she does," she says of her daughter. "I hope she is surrounded by great people that support her, I hope that she finds work that fulfils her. [That's] what everybody wants for their kids."