Education: An Anxious Parent’s Guide to High School

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High schools are one of the most important places in life, marking the end of mandatory education and the transition to adulthood. It is where students learn useful skills, plan for their future, and build life-long friendships. Immigrant students often enter a new high school with fear and excitement. These feelings are natural, for in addition to changing schools, these students are also burdened by cultural differences and an unfamiliar language.

As parents, you may be anxious as well, but understanding the way the Canadian education system works in Ontario will reduce that anxiety.

Marks and Credits

The school system works on earning credits. For every course that a student completes with a mark of 50 percent or higher, the student receives one credit.

Thirty credits are required for graduation. Eighteen of these are mandatory (they must be completed), while the other twelve are optional, chosen by the student.

Students can complete high school in four years by taking eight credits per year, but if they wish, they can take fewer courses each year and attend for an extra semester or year. They can continue in high school until they reach the age of 21. If the student has already begun high school in her home country, the school will also evaluate her previous education and grant her partial credits towards graduation.

Choosing Courses

There are many different courses available. Around every February, Students select courses on a Course Selection Form for next year. You must sign this form to show your consent with the choices if your son/daughter is under age 18.

In grades 9 and 10, the first two years of high school, students choose to study either Academic or Applied courses in the following subjects: English, mathematics, science, history, geography and French.

Academic courses are the choice for students planning to take grade 11 and 12 University Preparation courses. These courses focus on theory, encouraging students to develop reading and independent learning skills.

Applied courses, on the other hand, teach the concepts with a focus on practical application (how they would be used in the workplace). They prepare students for College and Workplace Preparation courses in grade 11 and 12, aiding them if they plan to enter an apprenticeship or the work force upon graduation. Be careful to choose the right type of course. If a student takes Applied math in grade 9, he may need to learn additional material to supplement his learning if he wishes to take Academic math in grade 10.

Grade 11 and 12 courses divide into four types depending on the student’s plan after high school.

University Preparation courses meet the entrance requirements for universities, while University/College Preparation courses meet the criteria for some universities and most colleges. College Preparation courses allow students to enter community college programs. Workplace Preparation courses are only for those entering apprenticeship or the work force directly upon graduation. Note that most grade 11 University and University/College Preparation courses require grade 10 Academic courses as prerequisites, so those who attend grade 10 Applied courses will need to take a Transfer course. A Transfer course supplements (adds to) the material learned in the previous course and helps to meet the prerequisite.

In addition, there are some courses called open courses. Like the others, they also give credits toward graduation, but do not have a grade level attached. The courses teach general knowledge in areas like art, drama, or physical education. Immigrant students learning basic English must take ESL or ELD courses, which are open courses.


If your son/daughter wishes to have work experience along with high school, consider the Cooperative Education Program (Co-op) and Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program (OYAP). In Co-op, students spend a part of their school day in a real life workplace and gain hands-on experience. The OYAP is an apprenticeship program for junior and senior students age 16 or older, with at least 16 high school credits.

It allows students to continue earning credits towards graduation while giving them a head start in their apprenticeship.


There are several requirements to graduation. The student must have at least 30 course credits. He also needs to pass the Literacy Test, which show that he has the literacy skills he should have acquired by the end of grade 9. Students generally demonstrate this by passing the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test. If they are repeatedly unsuccessful, students may complete the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Course, which is an alternate way to meet the requirement. The final requirement is 40 hours of community service, which encourages students to volunteer outside of class. If students meet all the criteria listed above, they receive an Ontario Secondary School Diploma to celebrate their achievement. This diploma is a crucial part of the requirements for post-secondary education.

How You Can Help

If you wish to help your son/daughter, here is a checklist to consider:

  • Speak with then regularly about school and life in Canada, be understanding towards any difficulties they face, and celebrate their achievements.
  • Encourage them to join extra-curricular activities, social events, develop hobbies and make new friends.
  • Work with them to create an education plan, attend career events, and help them choose courses depending on what they wish to pursue after graduation.
  • Encourage daily reading in English and enroll them in courses that improve their oral English skills.
  • Set up a study space for them with school supplies and help them with homework.
  • Make sure report cards, newsletters, forms, and announcements are all received.

It is crucial that you make an effort to ease your son/ daughter’s transition to a Canadian high school. If there are more questions and concerns, please consider attending a parent-teacher interview or speak with a school guidance counselor.

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