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Future of northern Westlock-area schools bandied at Jarvie meeting

Parents, principals, trustees and county representatives gathered at Jarvie School on Wednesday to discuss the future of the three schools along Highway 44 north of Westlock, which are facing declining enrolment as time goes on.
Supt. Egbert Stang and Pembina Hills board chair Doug Fleming talk about the changing face of education and “21st Century learners ” during a meeting at Jarvie
Supt. Egbert Stang and Pembina Hills board chair Doug Fleming talk about the changing face of education and “21st Century learners ” during a meeting at Jarvie School on Wednesday about the fate of the division’s northern schools.

Parents, principals, trustees and county representatives gathered at Jarvie School on Wednesday to discuss the future of the three schools along Highway 44 north of Westlock, which are facing declining enrolment as time goes on.

About 20 members of the Pembina Hills board of trustees, Westlock County representatives, school council members, principals and other members of the public turned out for the meeting.

Supt. Egbert Stang said the purpose of the meeting was not to talk about closing any of the three schools, but merely to discuss the realities of declining enrolments in Jarvie, Dapp and Fawcett.

There was no hidden agenda here, he said, and the division has not made any decisions regarding the future of these schools.

He also noted that the meeting was “not about coming up with a solution (that) night,” but rather to start a focused conversation on the realities of the situation and coming up with some ideas for down the road.

Enrolment has been declining in Pembina Hills division the 1995-1996 school year, he noted, with enrolments in Dapp, Jarvie and W.R. Frose falling 33 per cent over the last 15 years.

Currently, there are 119 students enrolled at Dapp, 60 kids at Jarvie and 82 students enrolled at W.R. Frose.

The policies that determine when a school can be considered for closure state that enrolment can drop down to no less than 20 students for K-3, 20 students for Grades 4-6 and 40 students for Grades 7-9.

Currently, W.R. Frose is the closest to dipping below those levels. (It actually has fallen below 40 students in Grade 7-9, but its Grade 9 class was moved to R.F. Staples in Westlock at the start of the school year.)

In the 2011-2012 school year, enrolment at Jarvie School is projected to drop by 11 students. It falls further the following year but rebounds slightly in 2013-2014. W.R. Frose and Dapp remain fairly constant.

These are projections only and can’t reflect all the major changes that may occur in communities. Stang noted how the division was taken aback by the loss of approximately 30 families in the Swan Hills area at the beginning of the year, which meant a major enrolment decrease.

In general, people are a lot more mobile than they used to be.

“Our families are moving more quickly,” he said.

Stang posed the question of what would be the pros and cons if Pembina Hills did nothing, and simply allowed all three schools to remain in their current grade configuration.

Parent Joanne Kaliel said that multiple grade configurations are stressful on staff and students, and the uncertainty of these schools’ future in turn creates stress. The cons outweigh the pros, she added.

Stang then asked what would happen if the school division developed a business case for putting the students from all three schools into one facility.

Few parents jumped on this possibility to comment. Stang later acknowledged they would have to pick one site for this ‘communal’ school, as the province would definitely not construct a new building.

Westlock County reeve Charles Navratil raised the possibility of keeping funding in schools where students are supposed to attend rather than have the funding follow the student to their school of choice.

Another parent asked whether they should be looking at cutting employees, school days or programs to save money, or even to have students from the schools in Westlock attend the schools north of town.

Stang warned against the idea of cutting too many professional development days, as they are needed to allow staff to remain progressive with a constantly-changing world.

Stang also stressed that parents make choices based on convenience; their choice of school largely depends on where they work, and parents will go elsewhere if it becomes inconvenient to attend the same school.

If the school year is shortened, he noted, then it results in principals having to look after their children more often.

Stang also noted that, with the recent education cuts, there isn’t a lot of room to cut out more services and programs; they had already chopped programming extensively at the head office.

“Education dollars are scrutinized pretty tightly,” he said.

Stang said the board of trustees now has to go back and discuss their plans for the next step in these discussions, noting that the board “now has some things to think about.”

They would likely hold another public meeting after reviewing some of the points discussed that night, he indicated.

Board chair Doug Fleming noted in his final comments that school boards are lobbying their MLAs and education minister Dave Hancock about providing a sustainable and better predictable funding formula for school boards.

“I appreciate your efforts and we will be in touch,” added Fleming.