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The small-school conundrum

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Reynolds Elementary School in Prawda may be the only public school in southern Manitoba with enrolment down to single digits, but it's not alone as a small school getting smaller.

The Rolling River School Division's Oak River School has only 19 kids. The school was under review for closure prior to the provincial government's moratorium on school closings in 2008.

"We went through an extensive review of the Oak River community last year," superintendent Reg Klassen said from Minnedosa. "The population is right around 20 students.

"The school community there is pretty adamant" about staying open rather than moving the kids to Rivers, half an hour away.

In the Pine Creek division, Plumas School has dropped from 73 to 29 over a decade, and Langruth School from 66 to 48.

"We haven't had any discussions about what we would do if the moratorium was lifted," superintendent Brian Gouriluk said from Gladstone. "We're operating our two small schools. The enrolment is anticipated to be even next year.

"We do limit schools of choice to some degree -- we're not going to waste a lot of energy in the meantime," Gouriluk said. "If it's lifted, all sorts of divisions will start looking at all sorts of things."

Red River Valley School Division superintendent Pauline Lafond-Bouchard said Domain School is holding steady at around 32 kids this year and isn't a concern.

One of the starkest declines over the decade has been J.M. Young School in Eden, about 20 minutes from Neepawa -- enrolment plummeted from 107 to 29 in 10 years.

"The biggest factor is just rural depopulation," the Beautiful Plains School Division's Jason Young said.

Over a decade, the students bused anywhere in the division dropped from 750 to 560. "There's just less people outside of our main centres," he said.

There are 16 students from Eden going into Neepawa for school.

"Either they (parents) work in Neepawa, or there's daycare in Neepawa," Young said. "If the enrolment continues to decline, offering a full range of programs is difficult.

"We staff them according to the formula," Young said. "They have three kindergarten kids and six Grade 8s. We can't dictate where people choose to live."

Eden has three grades in one classroom, an itinerant music teacher and has not yet cut art. "The group that's left there is very committed to the school."

Park West superintendent Tim Mendel said Kenton School and its five classrooms became too small to continue. Now the children go to Hamiota, about 15 minutes away.

"Kenton just got down to be a single digit. The parents just understood it didn't make a lot of sense.

"Once your school goes, it's your community, it's the central point," Mendel said. Families start using schools of choice to go to the larger town, he said. "Once you get a bit of momentum going, it's deadly for small schools.

"We had a number of good conversations with (parents) -- it wasn't a shock to them."

In the Interlake School Division, Rosser School has dropped to 36 kids, Argyle School and Grosse Isle School to 48 each.

The division won't be looking at any closures, despite the declines, school board chairwoman Fran Fredericksen said from Stonewall.

Deputy minister of education Gerald Farthing said the province is aware some schools are getting so small they are in danger of no longer being viable. That's despite the province's pumping millions of dollars into small schools with declining enrolment to provide extra resources and encourage community facilities, primarily daycares, to move into empty classrooms.

The Tories would let school trustees decide whether to close a school, said education critic Kelvin Goertzen (Steinbach).

"I'm opposed to the moratorium," said Goertzen, who argued small schools may cost too much to operate, and may also not be able to provide the same quality of education as a larger school.

Manitoba Teachers' Society president Paul Olson said it takes a special kind of teacher to educate more than two grades in one classroom.

"You need to be really good -- I can't do it myself. You need to be a powerhouse of organization and time management," he said.

Olson met one teacher handling an entire kindergarten to Grade 12 public school on a Hutterite colony: "I'm still in awe of this teacher," he said.

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 9, 2013 J5

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