Wednesday, 19 April 2017 09:37

Deciding the fate of a rural school is never easy

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When Prairie Rose School Division trustees had the difficult decision before them regarding the future of New Brigden School, they were asked by one of their peers to be brave and make a decision that goes against the trend in rural Alberta.

The board discussed the future of the school April 11 at a highly-anticipated public meeting. Families who have been fighting for the past six months for the school to remain open were sitting in the room, most with their very young pre-school aged children with them.
The board had four options before it, after instigating the possible closure of the school process with a motion made at a January meeting. Those options could have included: maintaining the school’s status as a grades 1-9 facility; closing the junior-high program (grades 7-9); closing the Division 2 (grades 4-6) and junior-high programs; or closing the school completely. According to the Alberta Schools Act, closures of programming must be done by divisions (three grade levels), but individual grades can be requested to operate through a board letter to the Minister of Education and his or her approval.
The case for any of those options could have been made. Those far removed from the area and issue would opt for complete closure of the school. Afterall, it is an aging building that is costing money to operate and this year has an enrolment of only four students. Wouldn’t the money it takes to operate be better spent on the rest of the students in the division?
Those closest to the issue — parents of children in New Brigden who want to see their small community about a half an hour north of Oyen thrive — would say keep the school open, at least as a grades 1-6 facility and give some time to find ways to increase enrolment.
That too is a sound argument. The Friends of New Brigden School have already proven the heart they have for the school and the community. They have secured funding and donations for the next two years which will carry the school through the low enrolment so it can be operated in a positive position, as opposed to a deficit. They have come up with a plan to try to attract families with children to the area in the hopes they will choose to send them to New Brigden School. They know the work isn’t done and they continue to find creative ways in the hopes of revitalizing a community they say is doing well and already attracting young families.
They only need to look to history to see saving a school can be done. In 2003, Burdett School was on the school board’s agenda, slated for closure. A group of enthusiastic parent council members rallied around the school and approached the local Low-German Mennonite population to see what it would take to have those students attend classes in Burdett, as opposed to their own type of group home-schooling situation. By offering some classes such as religious studies and German, Burdett School, which had seven students that year, now has 245 enrolled for the 2016-17 school year.
In the end, the decision this year by the board regarding New Brigden School was a compromise for all involved. New Brigden School will operate as a grades 1-3 facility, but a request to the minister has been made to add Grade 4 starting in the upcoming school year. It gives time for  passionate community members to enact their plan for growth. Monitoring by administration will ensure the board can re-visit the situation in two years when there could be projected deficits again at the school level.
One trustee commented at the meeting that there had been some hurtful comments made by members of the New Brigden community directed at the board. Some of those comments included if the board were to close the school it would show they have no “hearts” and don’t care about students. There can be no denying by residents of the area, that there have been hurt feelings all around when it comes to the future of the school discussions. Some community members have chosen to have their children attend school in Oyen, where they have access to more programming and children can socialize in a different way with larger numbers. Those parents may choose not to have their children return to New Brigden School and that has to be okay for the community to move forward collectively.
School board trustees never take the decisions around school closures lightly, and they view them through a much larger lens than a member of the affected community. PRSD administration and trustees went above and beyond what is legislated in the Schools Act when it came to discussing the future of this small rural school. Meetings around enrolment took place as early as spring of 2016 and a meeting with parents of children who were not yet school-aged took place at the end of November. Administration continued to reach out to the community earlier this year, and a public meeting was held in New Brigden in March, as per legislation, with additional opportunities for private presentations at central office a week later.
Prairie Rose School Division Board trustees listened — with their ears, their minds and their hearts. They showed their support for a community which has residents who are thinking outside of the box to save their small, rural school. In the end, they were brave.
Rose Sanchez is assistant managing editor with the Prairie Post. Contact her with comments about this opinion piece at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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Rose Sanchez

Assistant Managing Editor