A new way to think about our new schools

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

Edmonton Journal - - OPINION - 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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