By Stephen Dafoe
Morinville – Three days after Education Minister Jeff Johnson announced École Georges P. Vanier School would be transferred to Sturgeon School Division effective July 1, parents of that school’s children met for a three-hour meeting to ask questions about the changing face of Catholic education in Morinville. The central message in that presentation, the first of two this week from Greater St. Albert Catholic Regional Division (GSACRD), was that while the logistics of infrastructure would change, the quality of education will not.
“I know for many families represented here tonight, Friday’s decision to transfer the school came as quite a surprise and a disappointment to many of you,” said a choked up GSACRD Board Chair Laurie-Ann Turnbull Monday night. “As a community resident passionate about the education provided in our town, I also struggled.” The board chair said the division did not want to give up Vanier, but the passing of Bill 4 required a facility be available to Sturgeon School Division in Morinville for Sept. 1, one with a gymnasium and a library. “Faced with challenge and change, what will remain constant is a focus on your children, providing the best education possible to each of them, and putting together a plan for the students within the timelines we have been given,” Turnbull told parents. “I want to assure you we are committed to your children in making this a smooth transition.”
Grade shuffling key
The plan for that transition and the remaining three GSACRD school facilities in town is to move current Vanier students to Notre Dame Catholic Elementary School, which would operate as a Kindergarten to Grade 4 elementary school. Grade 5 will transfer in the fall to Georges H. Primeau, which will operate as a Grade 5 to Grade 8 middle school. Pre-school, depending on enrollment numbers, could be split between Notre Dame and Morinville Community High School, the latter providing an opportunity for high school students interested in early childhood education to have some hands on learning beside actual early childhood educators.
Primeau Principal Vic Pedersen told parents the school once had more students in it than it will have next year with the addition of Grade 5. “We’re going to be able to make this work,” he assured parents, adding his staff is excited about the inclusion of Grade 5 next year. “Our goal will be to make it a true middle school where they are going to find success, where they’re going to enjoy coming to school, and where they won’t get beat up by the Grade 8s.” Pedersen’s final comment resulted in a good round of relieved laughter.
Leadership roles for Grade 5s, something both Vanier and Notre Dame engage in, will continue to be present for students attending Primeau in the fall. “I had one student ask me this morning if a Grade 5 student could be president of student council,” Pedersen said. “I get a sense they’re not afraid. They’re coming with excitement, so we want you to know we’re going to do everything we can.”
Pedersen noted half his school’s student population will be new next year as both Grade 5 and 6 students will be coming to the school. That newness will also include educators as Grade 5 teachers from both Vanier and Notre Dame will transition to Primeau. “You are going to have the same teachers and they’re going to bring their understanding and knowledge of what makes Grade 5 work to us, and I’m excited about it,” Pedersen said. “I think it is really going to work.”
Transitions will also take place as elementary students from Vanier relocate. Accommodating the additional elementary school students at Notre Dame will be accomplished through the addition of seven modular classrooms: the two recently installed at Vanier to house Morinville Public Elementary School, and five additional units set to roll off the assembly line in Southern Alberta July 7. GSACRD Superintendent David Keohane said the placement of seven modular classrooms will be adjacent to the existing school but those units would not be connected to the main school in the first year of operation. Bathroom facilities for the modulars will be within the new modular configuration.
Although the school could see a strong increase in student numbers, Keohane reinforced his earlier comments the division’s elementary school in Morinville would not be overcrowded. He anticipates classroom sizes at Notre Dame to be in the low- to mid-20s and in the mid-20s at Primeau. It is anticipated Notre Dame would have four classes of each grade level, including French Immersion which will continue as it has.
Alberta Education confirmed Monday night the cost of each modular unit is approximately $150,000, and that it cost another $100,000 for delivery and installation of each unit. As such, the addition to Notre Dame will be in the neighbourhood of $1.7 million. Those infrastructure costs are covered by Alberta Education and not by the school division.
Parking and other issues a concern
The majority of the evening’s agenda dealt with questions from parents. Several of those dealt not with overcrowding in the classrooms but with overcrowding of vehicles dropping students off at the school. Parent Ted Peacock was one who expressed parking logistic concerns. “Here [at Vanier] at least we have the overflow parking at the Parish Hall,” Peacock said. “Now we’ll have twice as many teachers coming in. We have parent volunteers. We have all these other people that are going to be taking up a two lane road.”
Peacock and the other parents were told the infrastructure plan calls for the construction of a staff parking lot and turnaround lane for parents to drop off and pick up students to the side of the existing school in the area of the existing playground. The parking lot will be gravel the first year and paved the second year. The playground is to be moved in time for the start of school this fall.
Other parental concerns included what would become of the money parents fundraised for a new playground for Vanier, concerns about bussing across town to Notre Dame, the continuation of French Immersion, and the availability of daycare. Parents were assured the funds raised would be dispensed by those who raised the funds, French Immersion programming would continue, and bussing would be available. The matter of daycare is less clear as the service is provided by an independent group to whom space is leased by the school division. Parents were assured answers to that and their other questions would be provided as soon as the information becomes available.
Although the majority of questions asked Monday night centred on logistics of the transition itself, some parents were largely concerned with the Minister of Education’s decision to give Sturgeon School Division a school.
Parent Charmaine Enns said she felt one important question needed to be answered, namely where is Education Minister Jeff Johnson. “We’ve just been hit with this shock Friday,” Enns said. “I can personally speak in saying I have been keeping on top of this matter for a very long time. For well over a year I’ve been updating the information and trying to learn everything I can about this. The decision Friday was a humongous shock and a disappointment to this community, and I’m wondering where is the Minister of Education and when is he coming to speak to us?”
Enns said she felt Education Minister Johnson’s decision was not representative of the sentiments expressed at the public forum held in Morinville in March with then Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk. “I don’t think that this school division deserves the decision that the minister made,” Enns said. “I was at the forum Minister Lukaszuk attended, and I’d like to know if Mr. Johnson watched the recording of that forum.” Enns went on to say she felt the decision has done damage because it was not in the interests of the children to make the decision so quickly. “The meeting with Minister Lukaszuk was on infrastructure. We’re welcoming of the public educational choice,” she said. “That’s fine.” She said GSACRD parents only ask that 700 students not be displaced for what were 100 public students at the time of Lukaszuk’s visit.
GSACRD will hold a second session Tuesday evening between 6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. for Notre Dame parents. Georges H. Primeau is hosting a barbecue June 11 at 5:30 p.m. to give Grade 4 parents and students an opportunity to see their new school.