Too many students, too few schools
The bells will ring, bag lunches will be examined, traded, and eaten, and new friendships will be forged as kids across Central Alberta head back to school today.
As they do, though, they will see a record number of Alberta students alongside them, fewer teachers, and, in some cases, crowded classrooms.
Enrollments are projected to be up in the Red Deer Public School District, Wolf Creek Public Schools, and Chinook’s Edge School Division for 2013/14, and each division is turning to modular classrooms to fit its students in while waiting for new schools to be built to ease the pressure.
But students in at least the Wolf Creek system will have to wait for their new classrooms as the modular units have not yet been delivered. Two modulars were approved for Blackfalds’ Iron Ridge Elementary Campus in 2013, where class sizes average as high as 27 students, but they have not yet arrived and the school has had to be modified to use music, art, and computer room spaces for classrooms.
Tim Chamberlin, spokesperson for Alberta Education, said the delay is largely due to a production issue.
Over 100 new modular classrooms were approved for 2013/14, creating over 2,000 new student spaces, he said.
“One of the things with modulars is that suppliers don’t only supply the education system. We are in competition with other sectors like oil and gas,” said Chamberlain.
“There is a delay, but we’re maintaining contact with our suppliers to ensure that our orders will be met for 2013/14,” he added, saying the expectation is that the modulars will be delivered to each division sometime in the fall.
The portable classroom has come a long way over the last few decades, with today’s modulars wired for technology, bright, and designed to attach seamlessly to the core of a school. Effectively, one cannot tell the difference between an addition and a classroom built into the core of a school.
Through the province’s new approach to school construction through public-private partnerships, Chamberlain said new facilities will be built with a core including things like administration space, gymnasiums, libraries and specialty rooms, with a significant amount of classroom space being met through portables. He said divisions communicate with the province to express their requirements for additional modulars, or if they have unnecessary portables that can be moved to other jurisdictions.
One new modular is going on at Sylvan Lake’s K-5 C.P. Blakely School this fall, but Chinook’s Edge School Division superintendent Kurt Sacher said what is really needed for the town is a new elementary school.
“We’re above capacity there in both of our elementary schools, so it’s a challenge. We definitely need a new school in Sylvan Lake, and it’s a top priority for the board to get a new K-8 school in that community and we would definitely use it right now if we had it,” said Sacher.
A new elementary school is also on the wish list of Red Deer Public School Division superintendent Piet Langstraat. In the meantime, it will make use of two modulars at Normandeau School.
However, the division had hoped for four new modular classrooms — two for Normandeau, and two for West Park Elementary. But a change in the funding model for the portables announced as part of this year’s provincial budget requiring school divisions to cover half the costs of transportation and installation for the units meant the division had to forego the two badly-needed space additions.
Chamberlin said the change was made because the demand for modulars far exceeds the supply based on what Alberta Education is able to fund. He said the cost-sharing initiative will ultimately allow the department to supply the system with more units, with boards funding the additions through capital reserves.
“We are able to fit all of the kids in our schools in the coming year,” said Langstraat, “Where the challenge comes is when we look to the future and when we forecast that continued growth, it does lead to overcrowding in our schools in the very near future. So the board in its capital plan has submitted a request for another new school, and the configuration might be K-5 or K-8, that’s yet to be determined.”
School construction projects are ongoing in Red Deer and Penhold, with three new facilities set to open their doors in one year.
A new elementary school, École Barrie Wilson, is on schedule to open in the Timberlands neighbourhood in 2014. It will open with space for 500 students — making use of eight modulars — with the possibility of expanding to a capacity of 600 in the future.
A new, larger, francophone school is also set to open in the city in 2014, just south of the existing École La Prairie School it will replace.
And in Penhold, the outer shell of what will become a new high school for Penhold has taken shape. Designed to accommodate about 550 students, the school will also open in September 2014.
In Blackfalds, a floor plan and design for a new school to come into existence in 2016 is being worked out this month within Wolf Creek Public Schools. Superintendent Larry Jacobs said the province’s new P3 method of building schools unfolds rather quickly — with three to five schools bundled to a single contractor — meaning a new school can be built in two years as opposed to three through the old method. However, as part of the process, the division put out an invitation to partner in the design and utilization of the new school in June but received no proposals before the late August deadline, something Jacobs suggested was primarily the result of municipalities and government agencies having already designed and spent their budgets for the year.
Further afield, Wild Rose Public Schools, which includes Rocky Mountain House, Caroline and Leslieville in its jurisdiction, is expecting a very gentle decline in enrolment. However, no schools are in danger of being closed and none are overcrowded, said superintendent Brian Celli.
And for Clearview Public Schools, which includes Stettler, the current trend is for relatively stable enrolment numbers, according to superintendent John Bailey.
Information from Red Deer Catholic Regional Schools was not available.