Edmonton Journal

A new way to think about our new schools

We should be planning to strengthen communitie­s, writes Barbara Silva.

- Barbara Silva is a public education advocate and communicat­ions director for SOS Alberta (Support Our Students), a volunteer-run, non-profit group advocating for Alberta students.

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.

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