‘Ottawa’ Which Ottawa Schools Will Have to Close? Report Warns of Harsh Reality
Parents and students at Ottawa’s largest school board should prepare to confront the two most controversial words in education: “school closure.”
No schools are targeted yet, but some will have to close as the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board conducts sweeping reviews over the next five years, warns a report to be considered by trustees Tuesday.
The report lays out the harsh reality: Enrolment is declining, and across the board there are 11,500 empty student spaces.
But there’s a mismatch between where schools are located and where they are needed.
In some fast-growing suburban areas and other pockets of the city, schools are crammed, their yards filled with portables. At the same time, 32 elementary schools across the district have an occupancy rate of less than 65 per cent. Four high schools are half empty, operating at less than 50 per cent of capacity.
The board is struggling to eliminate a budget shortfall and can’t afford to keep paying for unused classrooms, or padding the funding to help small schools maintain a variety of programs, the report warns.
The first two of seven “accommodation reviews” will begin this fall, with studies of all the schools in the Merivale-West area; and of the high schools in the east end of the city.
Staff aren’t expected to make recommendations until September 2016, with debate and public consultations running through February 2017. But it’s not hard to pick out schools that may be in the crosshairs for closure or change.
The need to study the three east-end high schools is “urgent,” the report says. Two of them — Rideau High School and Gloucester High School — are operating at less than 42 per cent of their capacity. The third, Colonel By Secondary School, is crammed, at 113 per cent capacity.
Rideau’s school population is in the “low 400s,” including only 61 students in Grade 9, the report said. And enrolment at Gloucester High School is projected to continue to decrease over the next few years.
High schools should ideally have a population of 800 in order to provide a wide range of program choices, the report said.
It makes the argument that small is definitely not beautiful.
Elementary schools should have at least a class and a half worth of students for each program in each grade, the report said. That allows students to have a “broader range of peer relationships” (education-speak for more friends) and allows teachers at each grade level to collaborate, the report said.
Across the board, 16 elementary schools have populations of 201 students or less. Historically, the board has supplemented course offerings in smaller schools by giving “disproportionate staffing” to them, but the number of small schools is increasing and the board can’t afford it, the report said.
However, parents should not assume that small schools in the city will necessarily be the ones to close, said board chair Shirley Seward. The seven reviews will typically include all the schools in an area of the city, so staff can study various configurations.
The Merivale-West district review, for example, includes 22 elementary and four secondary schools. Among the elementary schools, eight operate at less than 60 per cent capacity, and four operate at more than 100 per cent capacity. The review may recommend that some schools consolidate programs or change the grades they incorporate.
“We wanted to do this from a positive point of view,” said Seward. “We’re not just slashing and burning. That’s not what we’re doing. In each of the districts, we will look at whether any schools need to close, but also, and more important, what advantages the remaining schools have realized.”
Larger high schools can offer a wider range of programs, which was a priority identified in a review of secondary schools, she said.
One of the changes expected as part of the Merivale-West review is the addition of an International Baccalaureate program at a high school in that area. The only IB program now is at Colonel By Secondary School in the east end.
But some schools will have to close, Seward said, echoing the warning in the report. “School closures are painful,” she said. “Very painful. Parents and students become attached to their schools.”
The last school the board closed was Munster Public in 2015. It had shrunk to 58 students.
Another key issue at play as the reviews unfold is the fate of the board’s English programs, which have been swamped by the popularity of French immersion in the city.
Nearly 70 per cent of senior kindergarten students in the board enrol in French immersion, although some switch over to English before they finish high school.
That’s caused lopsided numbers at some schools that offer both programs, with tiny English classes staff say aren’t sustainable. There are only 14,000 students enrolled in the English program from Grade 1 to Grade 8, the report says. “It is evident given this number that the English program cannot be offered in all of our elementary schools.”
It suggests that some schools could offer only English programs, or a combination of English and middle-French immersion, which begins in Grade 4.
That’s controversial because many parents want to maintain neighbourhood schools with a variety of programs rather than busing kids to schools that specialize in either English or French immersion. The issue exploded recently in the debate over what to do about overcrowding at Elgin Street Public School. Angry parents yelled and cried at meetings and everyone now bemoans the poisonous atmosphere the debate created in the school community. The English program students at Elgin are moving to Centennial Public School in the fall, making Elgin Street a centre for French immersion only.
5,500: Empty pupil spaces
4: Schools at less than 50 per cent of capacity
7: Schools at 100 per cent capacity
6,000: Empty pupil spaces
32: Schools with an occupancy rate of less than 65 per cent
16: Schools with 201 students or less
Schools that are part of the Merivale West review
Elementary schools: Century, Sir Winston Churchill, Meadowlands, Carleton Heights, Leslie Park, Briargreen, Knoxdale, Greenbank, Manordale, Grant Alternative, Churchill Alternative, Bells Corners, Lakeview, Bayshore, D.A. Moodie, Agincourt, J.H. Putman, D. Roy Kennedy, Pinecrest, Regina Street, Severn, Woodroffe
Secondary schools: Merivale, Sir Robert Borden, Bell, Woodroffe
Some schools in the Merivale-West review that were under capacity in the fall of 2015:
Grant Alternative: 93 students in a school with a capacity for 243
Regina Street: 146 students in a school with a capacity for 300
Severn: 166 students in a school with a capacity for 375
Bayshore: 311 students in a school with a capacity for 594
D.A. Moodie: 351 students in a school with a capacity for 502
Century: 229 students in a school with a capacity for 444
Merivale High School: 616 students in a school with a capacity for 1,362