A growing number of public schools and critical programs for at-risk students are facing potential closures or relocations as low enrolment continues to plague dozens of buildings.
As many as 46 schools now have less than 70 per cent utilization, a significant spike from last year’s 16 schools listed for possible closure, meaning many more could be at risk of shutting their doors.
As well, critical programs such as Start Outreach for at-risk students in Bowness and the Louise Dean School for teen moms in Kensington are also facing low enrolment and could be considered for closure or relocation in the next two years.
Officials with the Calgary Board of Education say they’re increasingly challenged to fill buildings under a new provincial funding formula that requires schools to have 85 per cent utilization rates to receive operation and maintenance funding.
Combined with that, says CBE superintendent of facilities Dany Breton, is a generation of young couples who are choosing to have fewer children — or none at all.
“Since 2015, this is the trend that we have been seeing, not just in our enrolment numbers but in terms of city census data,” Breton said.
“Families are just having fewer children, and that is what we are seeing reflected in our enrolment . . . especially in the lower grades.”
Breton said as that trend continues, a growing number of schools will face low enrolment and the potential for closure.
“For any school seeing low enrolment, closure is certainly a potential consideration but it is always a last recourse for us.”
According to the CBE’s three-year student accommodation plan presented to trustees this week, many of the 46 schools with low enrolment are in the inner city, including Chinook Park School, Glenbrook School and Sunnyside School.
But a troubling new trend has also emerged showing many schools in outlying areas now also facing low enrolment, including schools such as North Haven, Scenic Acres, and Northern Lights School in Coventry Hills.
At the same time, some suburban areas have schools that are over 85 per cent capacity, including Grant MacEwan School in Falconridge and Tom Baines School serving Edgemont and Hamptons.
Breton says balancing low and high enrolment might mean changing boundaries for some schools, or relocating special programs to new buildings that have excess space.
For instance, Start Outreach may be relocated to Robert Thirsk High School, Breton said, giving kids access to space in a newer building that is also close to the northwest LRT line.
But parents say the CBE and the province need to find more creative solutions to keep inner-city schools open.
“It’s really concerning to see such a high number of schools facing potential closure,” said Medeana Moussa, spokeswoman for the Support Our Students advocacy group.
“These schools are the heartbeat of their neighbourhoods, they are the places where communities are built, where lifelong friendships are made.
“We need equity and access to education in all communities.”
Moussa added programs for special-needs students are critical supports that also need to stay where students access them, instead of moving them into outlying areas and forcing students to commute.
“When you put these kinds of limitations on these students, students who have special needs and need these critical supports, you could eventually see them drop out of school and maybe never even graduate.”
Moussa said the provincial formula that funds schools at 85 per cent capacity merely forces school boards to focus on filling up buildings to the point of overcrowding, at the expense of quality programming.
“When the government has set this arbitrary number of 85, do we need to create situations where all classes are overflowing, or kids are sitting on the ground, in hallways having lunch, or classes are sharing the gym or music rooms?
“When you reach that 85 per cent rate you are bursting at the seams, and you are no longer providing high-quality education.”
Wendy Keiver, executive director with the Alberta School Councils’ Association, added that school closures or relocations are also major disruptions in the lives of students and their families.
“We need to do better at supporting students,” Keiver said. “Families are disrupted any time there is a change in schools, a change they haven’t themselves initiated.
“Whether a school is closed due to low enrolment, or because it’s not safe or secure, or a program is relocated, it can be a real challenge for students and a real source of anxiety that can really impact their education.”
Last month, the ASCA also passed a resolution asking the Department of Education to remove utilization rates as a factor in operation and maintenance funding.
Breton said pushing schools to 85 per cent utilization rates can be challenging.
“It ensures we are good stewards of the funding we do receive, to ensure all of our schools are being utilized in the best ways possible,” Breton said.
Katherine Stavropoulos, press secretary for Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, said operations and maintenance (O&M) funding is provided to ensure safe schools for students but also consider space that’s not being used.
“A school is considered to be optimally utilized at 85 to 100 per cent. The O&M funding calculation takes into consideration that some schools do not utilize the full space of their buildings, as enrolments may decline over time, and that unused classrooms do not have the same level of cost as spaces in used classrooms.”