Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Parents upset with overcrowding solution in Louis Riel division

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More than 300 parents crowded into a school board meeting to hear that hundreds of their children will have go to a new school next September to ease overcrowding.

They didn't protest. But there was a sense of resignation, one observer said. "The decision's made. So what's the point?" she shrugged.

What's the issue in Louis Riel School Division?

There's growth in the south area of the division, and great demand for French immersion. The two French immersion schools, École Julie-Riel and École St. Germain, are 131 students over capacity this year, EJR already using the library as a classroom, ESG with two portables. Both are projected to continue growing, would require more portables each year, and would be 265 students over capacity by 2018.

Is there space elsewhere?

Yes, but.... three schools in the north part of the division which have hundreds of empty desks would have been closed had the province not imposed a moratorium on school closings in 2008. But they're far, far away, especially for little kids.

Six English stream schools in the south area are at one-third to two-thirds of capacity, with almost 1,000-and-counting empty desks, and only one is projected to grow over the next five years. They include Dr. D. W. Penner (slated in 2008 to have been closed), George McDowell, H.S. Paul, Samuel Burland, Highbury, and Victor H.L. Wyatt.

What's been discussed in extensive public consultation recent months?

There have been a whole slew of possibilities, which would require lots of kids changing schools and maybe being bused, moving grades among schools, designating more schools as French immersion, turning grades K-6 and K-8 schools into some combination of K-4 and 5-8 schools.

Parents lined up before a microphone at the Louis Riel School Division Tuesday evening and told the board and superintendent Duane Brothers the move will turn their lives upside-down. They bought homes in St. Vital near schools they wanted their kids to attend.

Next September, George McDowell School will be configured as a grades 6 to 8 French-immersion school and École St. Germain and École Julie-Riel will be turned into K to Grade 5 French immersion schools.

Children in the latter two schools, which are almost overcrowded, will be shifted to George McDowell.

It will be hard, said single mom Jennifer Johnson. She said her two children, a girl, 12 and a boy, 10, will have to attend McDowell. They currently attend Julie-Riel. George McDowell is two Transit bus rides away.

"I'm disappointed. It's going to be a big deal for our family. That's why we bought our home in the location where we are," she said.

A five-minute walk to school this year will become a $1,200 burden in bus tickets for the two kids next year, she said.

The process was exhausting, she said, adding she plans to lobby the school board for the cost of bus tickets.

School trustees delivered speeches after the move was announced, saying it was one of the toughest decisions they've made.

"I wanted a solution that would sustain both the French-immersion and English programs so we didn't have to go through this again in a couple of years," said trustee Sandy Nemeth, her voice trembling.

"It's been an emotional time. We've all invested hundreds of hours in consultation, forums and debate. I'm satisfied this motion is the right one."

The division has struggled for years with problems similar to those in Pembina Trails S.D. -- hundreds of empty desks in some older neighbourhoods, but school fields covered with portables in some newer suburban neighbourhoods.

There are popular programs parents covet for their kids, pockets of high demand, and pockets of empty classrooms, but students are often separated by kilometres from schools that have space.

The French-immersion programs at École Julie-Riel and École St. Germain are way beyond the schools' capacities, and the schools project an additional 74 kids next September.

Brothers had said the division did not have a favourite solution going into extensive community consultation. Many of the solutions would involve an English-track school, currently well-below capacity, becoming a French-immersion school next fall. That would involve English-track students moving schools, some of them likely having to take the bus.

In the mix for possible changes were Dr. D.W.L. Penner, George McDowell, H.S. Paul, Highbury, Samuel Burland, and Victor H.L. Wyatt schools.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 8, 2014 a4


Updated on Wednesday, January 8, 2014 at 8:50 AM CST: Fixes accents

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