Saturday, 11 January 2014

An open letter to the Government of Alberta regarding Schools in Developing Communities.

Edmonton is desperately in need of new schools and the 3 you announced just aren’t enough. In fact, if you could open those 3 schools tomorrow they would open full. You are well aware they are not enough. You are well aware that the underutilized school spaces in the inner city and older areas are NOT where the children are. You realize the children are being punished for adult’s failure to plan and you have the power to absolve them. Where is the leadership and will to fix this?

You have always been a government of dollars, of numbers, and not particularly swayed by the emotions of society. So here is the picture in numbers. 

·         Edmonton is a big city and unfortunately few people can walk to work or school. The average adult's commute by private vehicle, transit, or foot is 23 minutes (one way). The Alberta Government is suggesting that it is perfectly acceptable to ask a child to commute for, at least, twice that time on the school bus just to arrive at their “designated catchment school” each and every day (the first children onto my sons’ elementary school bus route each day ride for a full hour each way). The newest areas of the SW are now being designated “catchment schools” which are so far away that the bus ride times are going to top 1 ½ hours (one way). No child in a city as prosperous and populated as Edmonton should be asked to spend 3 hours on a bus to attend the closest school which can accommodate them.

·         You announced an additional new Catholic school in Windermere even though you know that almost 75% of Edmonton’s children fall under Edmonton Public’s “School District Residency” or jurisdiction (presumably this was to again “remind EPSB of their 66% overall utilization rate while Edmonton Catholic boasts 75%” even though you KNOW that those unused “spots” aren’t where the kids are). But Edmonton’s housing vacancy rate is lingering at around 1.4 %, and home sales are, for the most part, pacing demand for home purchases so it’s fairly clear that the underutilized schools are in areas where the population has merely aged and the kids aren’t there to attend the schools (we can't go around kicking people out of their homes that that families with small children can live there, can we?). Also, it would be hard to encourage the turnover to a younger demographic if these neighbourhood’s schools are all closing, so it’s not as simple as just closing schools to solve the problem in a big city is it? It must also be pointed out that many of these “underutilized” inner city schools are “full” of children who face sizable socio economic, language, and family challenges and that their school closing would present yet another huge barrier to their access to equitable educational and life opportunities; but you know that already, as well, don’t you?  Even if EPSB closed the schools all that would change is a percentage number on a bean counter’s page, the available school spaces still would NOT be where so many of the children ARE.

·         The Province has no numbers to protect kids. Aside from a few “recommendations” there is no maximum number of children who can be placed in a classroom, no maximum number of students a school can be expected to hold, and no square footage which the Province deems an unsuitable place for learning. Consequently my kid’s school currently has 568 students enrolled (when it is considered full at 404 students. This is based on the Province’s ACU School Capacity calculation ). But at this size we started the year with a shocking 30 children in one of our English Kindergarten classes, a class in the staffroom, above “recommended” class sizes for almost every class in the school, 20 classrooms of kids who can’t get enough time in either gym or music, and can’t even have an all school assembly because we have too many children to safely gather them now. And, for the record, the staffroom was used as a classroom this year because a few years ago we had a class on the stage (trying to learn while gym classes were running on the other side of what is essentially a curtain where I would estimate their minutes of concentrated learning each day to be ZERO) and the school thankfully decided it would not put learners in that position again.

·         The city of Edmonton is growing fast. Edmonton Public School Board was home to almost 7000 more students this year (2013/14) than in the 2009/2010 school year. Most elementary schools are now ‘bottom heavy’ with far more division 1 students (k-3) than division 2 students (4-6). These kids will have to grow through the grades and the rates aren’t dropping off behind them. In fact about 20% of the city’s kindergarten students live in the new and developing areas of the City where there are currently very few schools, and up to ¼ of the city’s over 40000 preschoolers live there too.  There is a toddler tidal wave (a school age tsunami if you will) coming, and like a wave their numbers will flow through 13 years of schooling (grades k to 12) and space will be needed for them.

We are ALL perfectly aware that the district failed to close underutilized schools, that the city has allowed for unchecked development, that the builders and realtors have spun tall tales of schools just waiting to be built, that hundreds of families bought knowing there was no school close to their family home. We are all aware of the colossal lie we have been told and chose to believe. Right now, we need someone to lead us out of the mess.

Those who idiotically (and obtusely) cry “Nanny state” or “Socialist!” every time a government regulates growth or sets standards for community planning need to be challenged. They have been loudest, longest but they do not speak for everyone. When we fail to vote in a government who serves the people, we fail to GET a government who serves the people. Our society needs leadership which puts the greater good first, and employs long term strategies and thinking to get us there.

But the government of Alberta has consistently put the highest income individuals ahead of seniors, workers, families, and most of all children. Sadly, the party waiting in the wings, trying to say all the right things and likely to become the next Alberta government follows the same agenda of putting individual privileges over societal rights and responsibilities; ahead of the greater good. They say the wealth will trickle down, and that the private will act in the public interest. I have not seen that happen. Not in the large scale, organized way we need. Our society needs a benevolent government to do that. Where is that leadership?

There IS a way we can achieve a fair and just society without homogenizing it, and without removing individual opportunities from it. A good place to start would be ensuring the next generations coming up have equal access to a great education. Good leadership can teach the people to think long term again.

For now, you promised that you could be a party who could adapt, who could respond to the needs of Alberta’s people, and you have not kept that promise. Announce new schools for where the kids are. Now. And build them before you fail the 100s and 100s of children counting on you. Because they are NOT just numbers.



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