Secular education coming to Morinville in September

GSACRD Superintendant David Keohane talks to media Thursday night.
By Stephen Dafoe

Morinville – On the very day when 5,000 students, teachers and parents gathered in St. Albert for an outdoor Mass hosted by Greater St. Albert Catholic Regional Division (GSACRD) schools, Morinville parents who have been fighting for a non-faith-based education for their children finally got the results of a survey that showed just how many likeminded families there were in Morinville.

That information was revealed Thursday night during an information session held at Morinville Community High School, putting some concrete numbers to a debate that has divided the community in recent months and revealing Sturgeon School Division as the educational partner to provide secular education in Morinville.

The online and mail-in surveys went to the 1,161 families of Morinville’s approximately 1,700 students attending the community’s four Catholic public schools. The research company received 334 responses to the survey, a response rate of 28.8 per cent. Additionally, 1,514 residents were contacted by phone. Of that number 558 completed the phone survey, a response rate of 36.9 per cent. Both surveys sought to gauge the interest in secular education in the community.

Pivotal Research Inc., the company contracted to conduct the survey, estimates 272 Morinville students would enrol in a non-faith-based program in the community. That number is based on 106 of the 592 students directly identified in parent survey responses, the remainder based on the results of a random survey of the community. Pivotal’s research from the two survey forms shows 37 per cent of the community expressed support for another educational choice for Morinville that is non-faith-based. A pivotal spokesman said actual numbers could be based on factors not included in the survey – location of the school, programming and staff.

The data revealed that the minimum number of 106 represents a 6.2 per cent shift in enrolment from GSACRD to the secular program. Of that number 74 are elementary students, 18 junior high and the 12 high school students. When the community survey results are factored in, the survey company estimates 167 elementary students, 67 junior high students and 38 high school students would be possible numbers for secular education.

Because the survey cannot determine the views of the large percentage of parents who did not respond to the survey, actual percentages are likely to be higher than the 6.2 per cent identified in the parent survey. Pivotal estimates as much as 15. 9 per cent of current students would enrol at a non-faith-based school.

Six-month’s of debate

The lack of secular education first became an issue at an all-candidates forum held in Morinville last October during the municipal elections. Parent Donna Hunter, together with several other Morinville parents, formally asked GSACRD, who operate four public schools in Morinville, for a secular option last December. It was a request that was denied by the board in January because providing a secular education was not in their mandate as a Catholic school division. Instead, the board offered Hunter and her delegation seven options they could pursue, none of which met with the group’s approval.

Things remained at a relative standstill until late March when GSACRD’s board and the division’s superintendent met with Education Minister Dave Hancock in a closed-door meeting at the Alberta legislature. Following the meeting, the school division contracted Edmonton-based Pivotal Research Inc. to conduct an independent and impartial survey to gauge the interest in a non-faith-based education option. GSACRD also began the task of finding an educational partner to deliver a secular program for those who desired it for their children. While the division acknowledged their obligation to do so, they have maintained their position that they cannot be the ones to provide secular programing because of their Catholic mandate.

GSACRD board Chair Lauri-Ann Turnbull said since receiving the request for secular education in Morinville, the board has maintained educational choice was important and needed to be respected.

“Our faith tells us that support for our mandate should be freely chosen, and we have made our priority working with the Minister of Education to seek the legislative solution that would allow both electoral rights and program delivery associated with secular interests to take place,” she said, adding the best solution for the community and its spirit of cooperation and collaboration was to find a partner who could provide a quality education program that addressed secular interests. “In short, we continue to maintain that secular education is not the work of the Catholic school board.”

Partner selected

Thursday night’s meeting revealed Sturgeon School Division, whose offices are in Morinville, will be the education partner to provide the non-faith-based education for the community. Turnbull said GSACRD will enter into an educational services agreement with Sturgeon and maintain an arms-length approach, allowing the partner division to deliver their program.

“We greatly appreciate the spirit of cooperation and mutual respect that representatives from Sturgeon have demonstrated in our meetings over the past few days,” Turnbull said, adding she felt Sturgeon School Division would make its best efforts to provide education that meets parent choices.

Sturgeon School Division Board Chair Terry Jewell thanked GSACRD for giving the Town of Morinville and educational choice. Although unable to give a great deal of specifics as to what shape the non-faith-based program would take this fall, he did assure the community that the education would take place in Morinville, at least for elementary grades. The Ministry of Education was in Morinville Thursday looking at possible locations to house students. Two options presented during the info session were behind the Sturgeon School Division offices or on property near the Parish Hall. School facilities on those locations most likely being made of modular units.

The board chair said real numbers are needed as soon as possible and that an open house will be held at the Senior’s Rendez-Vous Centre June 14 to further elaborate on the non-faith-based program Sturgeon will offer. He encourages parents wishing the secular option to call the board office at 780-939-4341 to talk to Superintendent Michéle Dick.

“The first thing for us is to get further numbers on how many kids wish to partake in this program,” Jewell said. “It will be important for all families who wish to register for a non-faith-based program to get in touch with us as soon as possible. The sooner we know the number of students and what grades they are in, the sooner we can work with this community to establish the school and the breadth of programs we will offer.”

Jewell said the arrangement is the result of two locally-elected school boards being able to work together to provide a solution.

Parent delegation reacts

Donna Hunter, who lead the charge to bring secular education to Morinville said she was pleased Morinville parents who said no thank you to a fully-permeated Catholic education will have an option for their children this fall even though her own children will not be a part of that program. Faced with uncertainty about whether or not such a program would be in place, Hunter’s family, together with her sister’s family and their father have sold their Morinville homes and moved to Edmonton where they could be certain of enrolling their children in the kind of public education they have battled to bring to Morinville.

While pleased, Hunter was critical GSACRD waited so long to select its education partner.

“They’ve had all of two days, maybe three days’ notice,” she said, adding the Minister of Education is not accepting any of the survey numbers as firm, meaning there will be no reallocation of school space within Morinville, a situation resulting in portables being placed on available land. “Everything is going to be done between June 2 and September 1 because they were not given any permission to do anything earlier.”

Hunter said she believed the short time frame has put a large burden on Sturgeon School Division’s shoulders. “I can’t hold Sturgeon accountable for anything, no matter how it turns out,” Hunter said. “They can pull off something amazing because they are invested and want it to work.”

Of greater importance to Hunter and her delegation is the catch-22 situation whereby parents who opt for the non-faith-based option will be non-resident voters within Sturgeon School Division, thus becoming electorally disenfranchised.

Sturgeon School Division Superintendent Michelle Dick indicated Thursday night parents of children in the non-faith-based program would be able to form their own parent council. Board Chair Terry Jewell explained both boards and the Minister of Education are aware of the disenfranchisement issue and that it is part two of the puzzle that needs to be resolved on the road to providing a non-faith-based program to Morinville students.

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7 Comments

  1. GSACRD has already posted that there will be funding issues next year as teachers will be less and classroom sizes will be larger. They are expecting more children next year at their schools, I am personally looking forward to the smaller class sizes at SSD and the wonderful teaching methods that they offer! Thank you Donna and the Parent delegation for giving my children this wonderful opportunity!

  2. Sorry Misty, funding issues hit all of Alberta, not just GSACRD. Don’t be expecting smaller classes. Expect split classes as SSD is under the same budget crunch as everyone else.

  3. I have been following this story from the beginning with a lot of interest as I feel the rights of the citizens of Morinville are being infringed upon while our MLA, Education Minister and Provincial Government has done anything they can to avoid taking a stance on a sensitive issue. It’s really quite disappointing that our elected officials couldn’t have made something happen quicker as there should have never been a situation like this in the first place. I can only guess that because this is a sensitive issue for a lot of people, the Alberta Government chooses to try and remain neutral in order to keep votes in their corner for the next election. Their slow response to satisfy the human rights of Morinville parents has definitely lost my vote.

    I applaud the Morinville Parent Delegation for sticking to their guns and forcing the GSACRD to allow secular education into Morinville. I’m fairly certain the GSACRD wanted no part of this whatsoever, and it was your hard work that forced them to change.

    Although I am glad the Morinville Parents Delegation got their wish of secular education in Morinville, I still believe that Morinville (and the Province of Alberta) would be better off with one public school system everywhere in Alberta. Having different groups fight for religious or non-religious schools is driving a wedge between people in our communities’ across Alberta instead of building bridges. Not to mention all the other financial and administrative complexities of running public and separate schools.

  4. Just food for thought: The lot between the existing high school and the retirement village (about to be zoned commercial) would be big enough for such a school to exist. The close proximity of the two schools together could benefit in sharing costs of after-school programs, sporting events, common bussing etc…And logistically speaking both would have equal opportunity to utilize the MCCC without travel being a hindrance to one group.

  5. I like Tims idea although I am biased because that’s close to where I live.

    Regards;

    Thomas Kirsop

  6. SSD is now accepting registrations online. You can also fax, mail or drop it off at their division office (located right in town-9820-104 Street, Morinville, Alberta, T8R 1L8). Here is their website address: http://www.sturgeon.ab.ca/

    For those sitting on the fence, I suggest you attend their Open House on June 14th before deciding whether you want your child in a public inclusive education or a Catholic permeated education. SSD programs include preschool headstart, gifted & talented preschool programs, French immersion and Reggio Emilia inspired classrooms.

    We don’t know what the classroom sizes will be. However, given the survey results, I think it is safe to say there won’t be 300 kids attending SSD, at least not in the first year. My daughter’s kindergarten class currently has 24 students. With the newsletter sent home stating there will be funding cuts (which applies to all schools, Catholic or not) and larger class sizes. So, we do have an idea what the class sizes will be for GSACRD schools.

    Another thing to note is that SSD is willing and wanting to be the provider of public education. They have never been able to provide public education in Morinville before; this is their chance. I am confident they will do everything they can to make it a success.

    I would prefer the temporary location be next to SSD office. It is next to the arena which can be used all year round, the playground, the open field, and the outdoor rink. I was at the spray park the other day and noticed students from the Christian school making great use of all these amenities.

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