French school supporters want aging, overcapacity elementary replaced

Parents and community members in the Porters Lake, N.S., area say a local French school that opened as an elementary in 1957 is inadequate to serve as a P-12 and needs to be replaced.

École des Beaux-Marais in Porters Lake, N.S., now designated as P-12 school, but was built for elementary use

École des Beaux-Marais in Porters Lake, N.S., originally opened as an elementary school in 1957. (Submitted by École des Beaux-Marais Action Team)

At École des Beaux-Marais in Porters Lake, N.S., the gym is more like a multi-purpose room, doubling as the cafeteria for the P-6 school, which also has pre-primary.

Because the ceiling is so low, there's even talk of busing older students next school year to a nearby recreation facility once a week for their gym classes.

"They're playing volleyball on their knees. Forget about basketball, that's just not possible," said parent Michelle Burgess.

Beginning this fall, the French school, which is run by the province's francophone school board, will add a Grade 7 class, and an additional grade will be added in each subsequent year until it becomes a P-12 school.

The gym's shortcomings are just one of the many concerns parents have about a building that's already overcapacity. Other worries they cite include the lack of a science lab, and music and art rooms.

"It really doesn't have the infrastructure to effectively deliver the Nova Scotia curriculum past Grade 6," said Krista MacMillan, a parent who has four children, two of whom attend the school.

The gym at École des Beaux-Marais also functions as the school's cafeteria. (Submitted by École des Beaux-Marais Action Team)

The school opened in 1957 and served as the local elementary school, but was closed when it was replaced by Porters Lake Elementary. As a result of the community's demand for a francophone school, École des Beaux-Marais opened in the building in 2011.

Burgess sits on a committee that's trying to bring awareness to the shortcomings the building will have as a P-12 school, and is working to get a new school built.

Besides a letter-writing campaign to politicians, they've also created videos about the school's situation and posted them to YouTube.

Burgess said 214 students are currently enrolled in the school, but its capacity is 196. She said that by the time the school has a Grade 12 class, it could have more than 400 students.

The area has a long Acadian history, but much of the language and culture has been lost. It's something parents and community members are working to restore.

"A language is a big part of a culture, so I think the school has a very important role in preserving and promoting the culture," said Beverly Hugli, who lives in nearby Grand Desert.

She's a member of a group of seniors who get together on a weekly basis to work on their French.

There's also a group of École des Beaux-Marais parents taking a weekly French class at the school so they can speak the language at home with their kids. MacMillan is one of those taking the class.

"Having my children in a French school has really helped to promote the French language, it's really also given them pride in their background," she said.

'Major infrastructure challenges'

In a statement, ​the Conseil Scolaire Acadien Provincial said a wing of the school is unoccupied and noted renovations will be made to the building to accommodate the growing student body.

Spokesperson Marie-Andrée Laflamme said the school board has communicated its infrastructure needs to the Education Department.

"CSAP has major infrastructure challenges, and we are making every effort, by working with all our partners, to meet the needs of the Acadian and francophone population," she said.

The Education Department said it understands the important role French schools play in the vitality of Acadian communities.

"We are committed to investing in high quality, safe and modern schools to support student learning and performance," spokesperson Heather Fairbairn said in an email.

Parent Michelle Burgess says opening a new school would help avoid cultural assimilation. (Submitted by École des Beaux-Marais Action Team)

She said the province is working with CSAP to address concerns about enrolment pressures. Fairbairn said the capital planning process that leads to decisions on new schools and renovations is underway.

If kids entering Grade 7 choose not to continue attending École des Beaux-Marais, their other options are to attend Gaetz Brook Junior High in neighbouring Head of Chezzetcook for French immersion, a less in-depth a form of French education; or apply to attend École du Carrefour in Dartmouth, a roughly 20-minute drive from their current school.

École des Beaux-Marais parents want their kids to be educated in the community.

"CSAP has an obligation to reverse assimilation and that's what's happening here finally ... but if the school fails, we will fail. We will be reassimilated," said Burgess.