Choice comes with challenges

Turns out a recession breeds babies. Judging by the recent enrolment statistics recently provided to Edmonton Public Trustees more than 3,000 students will be joining our district next year with about a third of those being kindergarteners.

This is fabulous news for our district for a couple of reasons:

  1. Families in Edmonton are continuing to choose Edmonton Public schools as they see the strengths of our district, including the overwhelming amount of choice (34 alternative programs in 100 different schools) we have in our schools. More on this below.
  2. More than one thousand (1,068 as of Spring 2019) children are enrolled in one of our early childhood programs at Edmonton Public. Pre-kindergarten is critical for some families as it’s an opportunity to get a child’s school experience off to a great start, especially if those students require some extra support or assessments prior to enrolling in kindergarten.

Growth at Edmonton Public isn’t new. For the past 8 years Edmonton public enrolment has grown by about 3 percent annually, or by 27 percent since 2010. Edmonton Public is the fastest growing school district in Alberta and next year we will have about 105,000 students enrolled in 213 schools. Edmonton Catholic, by comparison, will welcome 723 new students in September 2019.

This growth, though positive, does create challenges for the Board of Trustees. With additional students enrolling in Edmonton Public the pressing need for funding for enrolment growth becomes even more important.

Also, many families are choosing Edmonton Public because of the history of choice we offer in our district. Since 1974 Edmonton Public has offered what the district likes to call alternative programs or programs of choice. This includes sports, arts, faith and language programs. While I was a reporter at CBC I did a story about all the choice at Edmonton Public after being overwhelmed as a parent on where to send my child to school and feeling inundated by the splashy billboards around the city. At that time I was struck by the notion of how schools must compete for students and how it is up to school communities to attract students in an effort to remain viable.

For many schools the ability to offer speciality programming is what has saved them from closure. I think of Mount Royal Elementary School, who when faced with declining enrolment decided to offer an arts-core education program and now has strong enrolment. In the news recently, was the announcement that Hardisty school will be offering an extensions program for gifted and twice-exceptional students (those who are intellectually gifted and have disabilities.) The Hardisy example is a good one as it highlights what happens when a program grows beyond capacity at one school, in this case at McKernan, and the challenge the district has in finding space to accommodate those families who want that program for their children even if it means switching schools.

The reality is that alternative programs are hugely successful within Edmonton Public. Parents want choice and students want to find programs that nurture their abilities and skills. I am proud to serve on a board of Trustees that is responsive to what parents and students want and honours school choice. The decision made in the 1970s to offer school choice, beginning with French and Ukrainian bilingual programs, meant we were the first choice for many parents instead of a private school. Incorporating school choice into the values of Edmonton public has undoubtedly meant far fewer private schools in our city as there simply wasn’t and hasn’t been a demand for them.

But there are challenges.

  • For example, how accessible are these programs?
  • Where are the programs located in the city? Are they equitably distributed?
  • Transportation costs. Students enrolled in alternative programs may have to travel long distances, which means added cost for our district. Edmonton Public receives some funding for bus transportation for students in alternative programs, but we will have to increase bus transportation costs to cover the gap in funding.
  • Space crunches within our schools has meant even though there’s demand for alternative program there simply isn’t room.

All of these challenges and opportunities will be talked about at upcoming meetings hosted by the district, with the goal of continuing the conversation at the administrative and board level in Fall 2019.

Choice is what has defined us for more than forty years at Edmonton Public. I believe it’s important we continue to offer choice but also be aware of the realities of what that choice means. I look forward to the conversation.

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