A new way to think about our new schools
We should be planning to strengthen communities, writes Barbara Silva.
The 2017 Alberta budget allocated $500 million for new schools and modernizations. The announcement created a great deal of discussion about the location of new schools, where more schools are needed, and how new schools shift boundaries, impacting families and communities.
Time and time again, when school infrastructure issues arise, parents are moved to make public, personal pleas about how the lack of school or a boundary change has impacted their family.
When parents are left to advocate, their work often revolves around the “school life cycle” of their vested interest, their child. This is to say, if fighting for a high school, their battle won’t last longer than three years, long enough to start Grade 10 and finish Grade 12.
Inevitably, new parents with the same concerns as the last graduating class start the fight all over again. The voices and vision become disjointed. Because of this cycle, it is vital Albertans move away from expecting parents to be the sole advocates for schools. We are better able to create and act on long-term vision when not in the eye of the storm. Approaching new school builds as a community strengthens support for both education and the wider society.
It is increasingly evident there are several issues contributing to our inability to provide enough infrastructure for Alberta’s students.
One factor is how choice and alternative programs serving students across cities become overpopulated, inevitably requiring boundary changes. These changes lead to students having to uproot and travel even farther to a new redesignated school.
The plethora of choice and alternative programs particularly in urban boards has led to a spider’s web of transportation issues, resulting in a weakening of communities and contributing to the perception that the “regular” community schools provide lower-quality education. It’s common in urban communities that very few of the neighbourhood kids attend the same school.
Another factor, and missed opportunity, is the inability for municipal and provincial governments to legislate new builders of booming communities to contribute funding to school builds. This initiative is long overdue and has to be considered as essential to solving the problem of limited infrastructure. As communities, we must do more than acknowledge how increased municipal and provincial co-operation would contribute much needed infrastructure but take active steps to make this government policy.
Where schools get built is another area of concern. Certainly it should not be affected by which communities are better able to engage, fundraise, or influence. All Albertan children need a safe, quality school to attend and it is the responsibility of the government to provide that public service.
In order to properly address this issue, all levels of government must re-emphasize the value of community building through strong, accessible and diverse community schools. Schools need to be centres for community engagement that leave them resistant to community population booms and busts.
Physically, we must build schools with comprehensive libraries, arts centres and gym facilities. Including wraparound services like child care, seniors’ centres, and/or health-care satellite offices are all ways to both educate our students and strengthen communities. Academically, creating schools with rich science, language, arts programs would eliminate so many of the issues created by alternative programs that ultimately leave communities, school boards, and parents fighting, in competition with each other, for funding.
The only losers in all of this are Alberta students. Spending hours on buses to leave their communities for perceived advantages has been going on for 20 years under the current model. Our system is not scrambling for infrastructure in spite of the current competition model, we find ourselves here because of it.
It’s time to re-evaluate how we fund education, and recommit to a system that serves the public equitably. How and where we build schools is the foundation of that change.