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Classroom space goes begging

Daycare centres cast envious eyes on underused schools

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There could have been 300 new child care spaces opening up in southeast Winnipeg.

Instead, Louis Riel School Division will continue to operate schools this September such as Archwood, built for 375, with only 89 kids in nine grades.

And it will operate Marion, built for 500, with 127 children in kindergarten to Grade 8.

And they're not the only schools in Louis Riel S.D. with low enrolment that's getting lower every year, says superintendent Terry Borys.

The division's trustees had four schools -- Marion, Archwood, Henri Bergeron, Dr. D.W. Penner -- under review for possible closure this past June 30.

The most likely outcome was that three schools would have closed and programs shifted around among several schools. Two schools would have become large daycares.

Instead, Education Minister Peter Bjornson imposed a moratorium on school closings in the spring of 2008.

"I could have given you 300 (daycare spaces) in two locations. That's needed, we know that, and it could have created jobs," said Borys.

In Archwood this fall, "There are six (students) in Grade 4. There are 89 spread over nine grades -- you can't tell me that's right."

Those would be good numbers for many of the small rural schools struggling to remain viable, where the school is one of the few institutions in its community, and where it's a long bus ride to a bigger school in another town.

But having fewer than 100 kids in a city school, even having fewer than 150? That's pretty unusual.

Archwood won't be Winnipeg's smallest public school. Pembina Trails S.D. will run Chapman School with only 80 kids, and River East Transcona S.D. expects only 87 at Sherwood School -- both schools that likely would have closed this past June 30, now kept open by government fiat.

"Last year at Marion School, there were seven girls in grades 7 and 8 (combined)," Borys said.

Provencher School, built for 500, will have 198 students and Henri Bergeron 194. Stand in the right spot on Cathedral Avenue and you can see both schools, said Borys.

"Basically, at some point, these two schools have to come together" as the French immersion K-8 school in north St. Boniface, he said. "We could have done some interesting things in north St. Boniface for kids."

Borys said that Louis Riel has dropped from 15,458 students in 2002, when the Doer government forced St. Vital and St. Boniface school divisions to amalgamate, to an anticipated 14,350 next month. That's despite large new subdivisions in Royalwood, Island Lakes, River Park South and Sage Creek.

"The overall picture is we have a declining enrolment pattern, and we've seen this since amalgamation," Borys said.

But, Borys said, the division's French immersion enrolment is growing, further complicating numbers.

Dr. D.W. Penner has actually stabilized at 149, he said, thanks to the division allowing parents to move their kids from other catchment areas. They're attracted by the school being on a quiet side street next to a park, and by D.W. Penner having kindergarten to Grade 6 -- a rarity in St. Vital, where schools were traditionally K-9.

"Provencher's population has gone down incredibly," Borys said. The division has grandfathered the school's so-called 50-50 program, in which half the courses were in French and half in English. Only kids already in that program can continue.

Half the 50-50 parents have switched their kids out of the program and into French immersion, he said.

"We're looking at having just under 200 kids. In 2005, we had 332 kids" at Provencher.

"We will not close schools in Manitoba, the deputy (minister of education) told us, and (that) we need to get over it," said Borys.

The schools threatened with closure weren't the only schools setting off alarms in Louis Riel.

"There are some schools that are getting small -- are there some that are on the chopping block (without the moratorium)?" Borys said rhetorically.

Glenwood is at 174 students, Lavallee 165, Nordale 193.

Exacerbating the situation is the division's decision to phase out K-9 schools in St. Vital and move all Grade 9 students into Glenlawn and Dakota collegiates by 2011.

Some of those schools have two to four times as many students in grades 8 and 9, than they do in kindergarten or Grade 1. When they become K-8, enrolment will drop, even plummet.

Minnetonka School has 243 students, but 85 are in grades 8 and 9, said Borys. "That school will go from 243 to 158 like that," he said, snapping his fingers.

Nelson McIntyre Collegiate is already the city's smallest public high school, a few dozen below St. Norbert Collegiate and Collège Pierre-Elliott-Trudeau.

"Nelson Mac is getting small, 327 students this year, and about 30 are international students. In two years, it'll be under 300 kids," said Borys.

Small schools such as Archwood and Marion will have to share music and phys-ed teachers, Borys pointed out. Some classrooms will be multigrade, which splits parents between those who think that's great and those who want their kids in a single-grade class.

Marion kids who want a band program will have to be bused. "You've got kids in grades 7 and 8 at Marion -- you think about bands, teams, plays.

"Social development is a challenge for some of our kids," who'd have a much wider range of potential friends in a larger school.

So far, Marion School is the only division school to receive provincial funding to put its empty spaces to community use. Construction has started on a daycare.

Borys said that other daycares have asked for school space, but, "Most people wanted child care in places where there was already child care.

"We've had faith-based schools ask for buildings, ask for space in buildings."

Sharing a public school building with a private school hasn't happened -- yet, he said.

Across the city, only Seven Oaks S.D. has been growing. Winnipeg S.D. had a big drop in enrolment last year, but officials say there are no schools causing concern, though some schools are below the 150-student threshhold generally needed to have one solid class in each elementary grade level.

St. James-Assiniboia superintendent Ron Weston said that Hedges and Ness middle schools will meet projections of a small decrease this fall. Both had been under review, and Ness would have closed this summer to beef up Hedges.

But, said Weston, the division has not seen any provincial help filling empty classrooms. "We haven't heard anything about that. We've received nothing on that."

Pembina Trails S.D.'s Chapman School will drop to 80 kids, down five from last year. They would have shifted a block away down Grant Avenue to Royal School, itself with plenty of seats available.

Like Louis Riel, Pembina Trails is losing students steadily, despite having new subdivisions. As people buy homes in Waverley West, their kids will take up empty desks in older schools east of Pembina Highway.

River East Transcona S.D. will be down 260 students this year. The province's second-largest division can't see any end to the decline.

"That's pretty consistent with what we're projecting over the next five to 10 years. Our concern is the big picture, that we're going down 1,300 students in the next five years," said River East Transcona superintendent Dennis Pottage. "We have to look at the viability of our school division, the financial viability."

River East Transcona wanted to close Sherwood and Westview schools.

Westview will be at 170 students next month, but Sherwood is down to 87.

The division already puts empty space to community use, and would welcome anything more that the province could help attract, Pottage said.

"We have daycares, before and after, nursery," he said. "There's a tremendous need for daycare spaces in our division."

And quietly hanging over everyone in the city and surrounding area's schools is the mystery of the cost in empty desks to be paid to fill the homes in Waverley West and Sage Creek.

Thousands of homes are coming, most built for families, and those people are not coming here from Toronto or Vancouver. No one knows yet which desks their kids would have occupied in other schools, in other neighbourhoods where they now live.

"I'm anxious to see where these people are coming from," said Borys.

The province has funded $1.5 million for 343 new child care spaces in 10 schools since imposing a moratorium on school closings -- only two of them previously under review for closure, Kenton and Marion schools:

Le P'tit Bonheur Inc., Marion School, Louis Riel School Division -- new location for four infant, 28 preschool,

24 school-age and 10 nursery school spaces.

David Livingstone School Age Program, David Livingstone School, Winnipeg School Division -- storage and kitchen renovations for 30 school-age spaces.

St. Adolphe Nursery School Inc., St. Adolphe School,

Seine River School Division -- renovations for 14 preschool and 14 school-age spaces in two classrooms.

Halcrow Lake Day Care Centre Inc., Mary Duncan School,

Kelsey School Division -- renovations to install bathroom facilities for 45 preschool spaces.

Eriksdale Nursery School Co-op Inc., Eriksdale School,

Interlake School Division -- renovations to two classrooms for four infant and 16 preschool spaces.

Pierson Preschool Inc., Pierson School, Southwest Horizon School Division -- renovations to classroom space for four infant and 16 preschool spaces.

Waskada Wee Ones Playschool Inc., Waskada School, Southwest Horizon School Division -- renovations to former gym space for four infant and 16 preschool spaces.

Hamiota Kids Club Inc., Kenton School, Park West School Division -- renovations for installation of washroom facilities for four infant and 16 preschool spaces.

Russell Lots-a-Tots Inc., Major Pratt School, Park West School Division -- renovations of adjacent science lab to expand 12 infant and 32 preschool spaces.

Morning Star Day Care Inc., Birtle Collegiate, Park West School Division -- renovations for eight infant, 12 preschool, 11 school-age and 19 nursery school spaces.

-- Source: Manitoba Family Services and Housing

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 30, 2009 B2

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