TORONTO - Among teenagers it's considered a no-brainer: scoring a coveted A grade these days can be as simple as handing over a wad of cash to a wisely-chosen private summer school.
As Ontario high school students face mounting pressure to pull in the high marks needed to get into an A-list university or college, it appears increasing numbers are cracking open their pocketbooks instead of their textbooks.
The trend - known as "buying a credit" - is ringing alarm bells for both public-system educators and officials at the Ministry of Education, who feel students engaging in the practice are unfairly winning scholarships and select spots in post-secondary schools and then heading off to study unprepared.
"There was only seven people in the class, the teachers focus on you, and basically, there was no way I could do bad," said Sean Donoahue, 17, who paid $2,000 for a 20-day course in Grade 12 English.
"That's what sold me, was that I couldn't get a bad mark in summer school. There was no way I'd get below an 80."
Ross, who attended a different Toronto-based private school, purchased a package of six credits at $1,200 a pop and boosted his average up to the low-90s. He was accepted to every university he applied to.
"It's a grade-factory. That's exactly what it is, that's the only reason the school exists. There's nothing more to the school," said the 20-year-old, who asked that only his middle name be used to avoid having his diploma disputed.
"If you just sort of showed up and did what you had to do, you were guaranteed something of an 80 or an 85. If you put in any effort whatsoever, you'd get exceptionally high marks - in the 90s."
Other students informally polled outside several non-descript private schools along the Yonge Street subway line in Toronto's north end said the practice was common knowledge. Some laughed bitterly about their "idiot" friends who were "spoon-fed" by teachers at even pricier schools.
There are currently 399 Ontario private schools licensed by the Ministry of Education to grant Ontario Secondary School Diploma credits. Some boast storied alum while others blend into strip-malls, but all must provide sufficient documentation and undergo an inspection every two years to determine whether they follow provincial guidelines. Many offer courses both in a summer school format as well as throughout the school year.
Yet a range of educators in both the publicly funded system and at the post-secondary level have either heard complaints or directly allege that, while all private schools can't be painted with a broad brush, some can't possibly be teaching to ministry standards.
"We have students who will have a history in math of getting 20 per cent lower than what they end up achieving in a math course in one of these schools," said Joan Timmings, who just ended her term as president of the Peel District School Board's Guidance Heads Association. "They'll be getting something like 60s in math or English, and they'll end up getting 80s or 90s in that (other) school."
Complaints of what he dubs a "credit mill situation" have been arriving from across the province at the organization representing public high school teachers for several years, said its president.
"It seems very apparent from the reports we were getting some of these institutions are working under these false guidelines," said Ken Coran, of the Ontario Secondary Schools Teachers' Federation.
"It's a very dangerous situation. I liken it to taking the easy way out or cheating."
Coran said several months ago he brought the Federations' concerns directly to Education Minister Kathleen Wynne, providing specific examples of unreliable schools.
Ultimately, it's up to the ministry to revoke a school's ability to grant a credit, though it hasn't done so in the past three years. It did scratch those rights from four private schools in 2005-06 and from five in 2004-05.
Steve Robinson, a ministry spokesman, acknowledged the ministry has received complaints from different sources - though he said there hasn't been a high number - and agreed some schools may be granting credits "willy-nilly."
To increase transparency for universities regarding where a credit was earned, additional measures are being implemented starting this fall, Robinson said. While transcripts sent from a student's high school to the application processing centre hadn't previously made any distinction, a "P" for private will now appear next to credits earned elsewhere.
"This gives a flag that (the credit) came from outside the public system," Robinson said. "That said, the onus is on the receiving institution to find out what private school (the student) got it from, whether or not their marks were legitimate."
Yet a can of worms opens when post-secondary schools start differentiating between the value of a credit earned at one school versus another, said George Granger, president of the Ontario Universities Application Centre, who is also an ex-officio member of the organization representing universities' interests on admissions. He and the president of an organization for university registrars both deferred responsibility back to the ministry.
"The universities aren't in a position to judge, they aren't in a position to know which course or which school might be associated with these allegations," Granger said.
Mark Kennedy, a spokesman for the Independent School Association of Ontario, which represents most private schools in the province, called the allegations "laughable."
"A lot of people choose our schools simply because they like our academic standards better," he said.
He refuted the suggestion that students achieving higher grades by taking a course in a smaller setting or for a second time means teaching isn't commensurate.
"To me that's the least likely possibility," he said. "Taking those courses again and a low student-teacher ratio, yeah, they should be scoring higher and they should be doing really well."
A list provided to The Canadian Press demonstrating the vast grade discrepancies between students at one Toronto-area public high school, and courses they completed at various private schools, showed that 27 credits were earned at such institutions in the last year and 12 in the previous year. In one case, a student whose grades ranged between 35 and 70 achieved 90 and 92 at the private school.
Two other students, one who scored 50 in physics and another who scored 22 in a different math course, took those same classes for a fee and each earned a 90.
"It's not summer school. I've been to summer school. That's the point," said Eddie Mircea, 16, heading into math class.
He said the teachers hand him pre-made formula sheets for tests, never check homework and don't give students assignments each week as they would in the other system.
"You go to it pretty much because it's easier than school. It's much easier than school - that's the point."