To diversify their Ontario Secondary School Degree, many high school students in Ontario are enrolled in the Specialist High Skills Major (SHSM) program to earn a special red seal on their diploma upon graduation.

Created by the Ontario Ministry of Education, SHSM is a program designed to offer students a unique opportunity to earn their diploma while simultaneously focussing on the specific sector they hope to pursue a career in through related courses and experiences. The program also aims to support and ease the transition of students into post-secondary education. The red seal is recognized by post-secondary institutions in Ontario and according to SHSM teacher Ms. Carey, “demonstrates that you are a focused young person who can self-organize and drive yourself to learn through enhanced opportunities. [Post-secondary institutions] want that well-rounded person as part of their organization.” Marc Garneau’s program was started by Mr. Welch, Mr. Seenath, Ms. Warren, and the Co-op and Guidance departments in 2009 and its area of specialization is Information Communications Technology (ICT).

Ms. Carey said that at first, the program was quite limited to computers and communications. “As time passed we realized that these areas of ICT are connected truly to every industry including engineering, medicine, industrial applications, trades, transportation, business and more. So we pushed our network wider to introduce this concept to every student that wants to make that connection to a higher self-standard at MGCI,” she explained.

MGCI offers a variety of courses that count towards the ICT qualifications including Communications Technology, Technological Design, Photography, Computer Science, and Physics. Khadija Farooq, a Grade 11 SHSM student, said that she loved the Communications Technology course she took in Grade 9 that first introduced her to ICT, as well as all the technology courses she took in the following years. “I loved those courses and learned many software and graphic design skills that I can use, and have used, in classes such as Chemistry and History.” SHSM students are required to complete three Grade 11 and one Grade 12 SHSM major courses. They also have the option of taking two each year. They must still complete the general Ontario Secondary School Degree (OSSD) requirements, which include one senior math credit and an English, as well as another art, business, or science credit.

Two cooperative education (Co-op) credits are also a requirement for SHSM students. Co-op is a course that places students in a professional environment where they work every day instead of attending a class at school. Students can complete their Co-op requirement in Grade 11 or 12, though they are encouraged to take it in the second semester of Grade 11, so they are able to gauge their interests and align their Grade 12 courses accordingly. Mr. Phambri, the coordinating guidance counselor for SHSM, said that Co-op is beneficial in that it provides opportunities to apply theories to real world experiences, obtain hands-on experience in a work setting while also allowing students get the opportunity to network with many professionals. They can add this experience to their resume to help them in the future with jobs and post-secondary applications, all of which align perfectly with the main goal of the SHSM program. Grade 11 SHSM student Hussna Jan is currently enrolled in a Co-op placement in architecture at Ryerson University. She said she has been making sketches with programs used by the undergraduate architecture students. “I’m currently working on a project where I try to design three household items on Rhino, a new program for 3D design that I was introduced to at my placement.” She was also involved in the unique opportunity to disassemble a project made by Ryerson students at HTO Park, an urban beach in Toronto, and move it to Nathan Phillips Square. Besides Co-op, SHSM also consists of other ways for students to gain new knowledge and experiences, such as visiting job fairs.

Information booklets on SHSM programs. Image: Jenny Bai

The SHSM program offers many “Reach Ahead” activities, such as ICT related conferences, trade shows, and tours of different postsecondary institutions. Students are required to participate in at least one Reach Ahead activity during their two years in the program, but are encouraged to attend one each year for a better experience. According to Ms. Carey, there has been no shortage of activities this year, with “Apple Canada, Skills Competitions, Maximum City, George Brown College. So many more, I’m dizzy with field trip forms!”

Aside from the course credit requirements, SHSM students must also complete six certifications, of which Standard First Aid, CPR, and WHMIS training are mandatory. The other three certifications are chosen by students out of thirty certification options, including training in basic electrical safety, computer hardware, leadership skills, ergonomics, and audio recording equipment.

The SHSM program at MGCI currently consists of one hundred and ten students. In terms of promoting the program, Ms. Carey said, “The key thing is making sure the program has elements that are valuable to students. We’ve resumed promoting it across the street at Valley Park in Grade 8, to connect with students with a passion for ICT.” Mr. Phambri added that lunchtime information sessions are often held and that word of mouth is a strategy he finds to be extremely effective. While students are only officially registered in SHSM in Grade 11 and 12, many students in junior grades are showing interest in the program and are on the path to earning their red seal by taking Grade 11 ICT courses earlier on and even completing other SHSM requirements such as CPR training before they officially enter the SHSM program.

For SHSM student Khadija, participating in SHSM was not something she was always passionate about, but that changed once she got to experience it more. “To be honest, my motivation to take part in the SHSM program had been merely the thought of receiving the recognition for having completed it. Now, I genuinely love this program for how much I have grown. I learned so much and did so much that I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. I am very comfortable with computer software, in contrast to before I took part in this program, when I used to have difficulty producing effective and expressive visual work with computers.”

Starting in the 2019 to 2020 school year, there will be a new addition to the SHSM program at MGCI. Focussed on Hospitality and Tourism, the program will be led by professional chefs Ms. Gunn and Ms. Fineberg, who are also teachers at the school. Mr. Adams will be teaching some of the major courses along with them. Ms. Carey said that the program will cater to students interested in careers in fields such as hotel management, the restaurant business, catering companies, event managing, and marketing. “Students who are interested in this career pathway will be able to gain incredible experiences and opportunities that make them ripe for lucrative jobs in that industry.” The major courses for the program will include culinary and business courses.

Moving forward, the goals of the SHSM program include expanding the program to other sectors, improving the recruitment of students through information sessions and word-of-mouth, and working with industry partners to expand the opportunities that SHSM offers to MGCI students. With the great interest shown in SHSM in junior grades this year, SHSM is evidently on the rise and continues to be a highly successful program at MGCI, with students well on their way to obtaining their red seals.