Calgary

Rocky View school division struggling with bigger overcrowding problem than Calgary districts

Classrooms across the Rocky View School Division, which covers communities west, north and east of Calgary, are bursting at the seams as student populations grow at a faster rate than what many Calgary schools are facing.

Classrooms are bursting at the seams as student populations grow

The allure of cheaper homes and a slower quality of life has attracted droves of young families to Chestermere, Airdrie and Cochrane, putting significant pressure on the region’s schools. (Syda Productions/Shutterstock)

Christie Cameron moved her young family from a Calgary suburb to Airdrie more than a decade ago, following in the footsteps of many other parents who were drawn by cheaper real estate in the outlying community.

Cameron moved to a neighbourhood where there were plans for a new school within walking distance of their home. Today, nearly three years after Heloise Lorimer School opened in southeast Airdrie, the Kindergarten to Grade 8 school is almost full.

It's not alone. Classrooms across the Rocky View school division, which covers communities west, north and east of Calgary, are bursting at the seams as student populations grow at a faster rate than what many Calgary schools are facing.

The Rocky View Schools division covers communites west, north and east of Calgary. (CBC)

For Cameron, it means her two sons will be going to different schools much sooner than she expected as the school board shifts students around to ease overcrowding.

"Why would I move to a neighbourhood within two blocks of a school just to put my son on a bus to a different school farther away?" she said.

Christie Cameron says her family is caught in the middle of a school overcrowding problem in Rocky View. (Reid Southwick/CBC)

The allure of cheaper homes and a slower quality of life has attracted droves of young families to Chestermere, Airdrie and Cochrane, putting significant pressure on the region's schools.

Rocky View Schools, the division that serves these communities, has a bigger problem with overcrowded classrooms than what Calgary's two larger school boards are dealing with, provincial data shows.

Annual demand for new schools

Fearing some schools will be full or close to it by September, Rocky View Schools is breaking up grades and moving students around three schools in Airdrie and four others in Chestermere in the next school year, in order to smooth out student populations.

At Heloise Lorimer, for instance, school board officials are scrapping Grades 6 to 8 — and sending those students to a middle school.

"With the growth rate that we have, we need on average two new schools opening every single year in Rocky View Schools," said Todd Brand, chair of the school division's board of trustees.

"Without that, our schools will reach some very uncomfortable levels of population."

Rocky View Schools growing fast

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange was not available for an interview. In a brief statement, Alberta Education said: "The government was elected on a mandate to continue to build new schools in communities across the province. More details will come when we table the budget this fall."

The Calgary Board of Education is the largest public school board in Alberta. It has 123,400 students enrolled in the current school year, compared with 24,700 in Rocky View Schools.

Still, the student population in Rocky View has consistently grown at a faster rate. In the past five years, enrolments in the school district have grown by as much as 5.7 per cent. At the CBE, the student body swelled by up to 3.4 per cent during the same period.

Hover your mouse or finger over the chart below to see how much faster Rocky View Schools has been growing.

Rocky View classrooms are also among the most crowded in Alberta. An overwhelming majority of classes offered in the school district during the 2017-2018 school year exceeded provincial targets.

These targets, in place since the 2000s, set a desired cap of class sizes in each grade, in order to promote higher academic achievement.

Seventy-six per cent of Rocky View classes surpassed these guidelines, compared with 68 per cent of classes in the CBE and 57 per cent provincewide.

In some Rocky View schools, the problems are more acute. At Bert Church High School in Airdrie, nine classes teaching core subjects, from language arts to social studies and science, each had 40 or more students.

The provincial standard for high school classes is a maximum of 27 students.

"Anytime you have schools that are overcrowded, the impact on students is obviously negative," said Brand.

"We've had a lot of situations in schools currently and in the past and we're anticipating in the future, where we're not able to use many parts of the school building for what their intended purposes are for."

Space that was intended as learning commons or music rooms are converted into classrooms, while gyms, washrooms and offices are no longer adequate to meet the swelling school population's needs.

"With the growth rate that we have, we need on average two new schools opening every single year in Rocky View Schools," says Todd Brand, chair of Rocky View Schools' board of trustees. (Reid Southwick/CBC)

"We're just very much wanting our government to make sure that they are building the schools and making sure that all of our students have equitable funding," Brand said.

But new schools are a long-term fix and won't alleviate immediate pressures in the classroom, said Greg Jeffery, president of the Alberta Teachers' Association, calling for more teachers.

15,000 new Alberta students expected

Jeffery said school boards across the province are dealing with crowded classrooms. He said administrators have been planning for the next school year with considerable caution, not knowing how much funding they'll get in the UCP government's first budget, expected this fall.

"We're going to get in excess of 15,000 new students in Alberta [in September], if the pattern that's been established continues," he said. "That's like filling up the Saddledome with kids and not having teachers for them. So we've got to put them into already overcrowded classrooms."

At Heloise Lorimer School, 86 per cent of all classes had more students than what the provincial targets recommend, just a year after it opened.

Cameron said the grade shakeup at the school will affect her family in 2020, when her eldest son moves on to a middle school. It will mean she will likely have to think about before- and after-school care for her youngest, since the brothers won't be together anymore.

"It's going to be more expensive," she said. "The logistics of it seem like a nightmare."

About the Author

Reid Southwick spent 10 years in newspapers reporting in New Brunswick and Alberta before joining CBC in late 2017. In Calgary, he has covered business news, crime and Alberta's fentanyl crisis. Get in touch with Reid by email at reid.southwick@cbc.ca or on Twitter @ReidSouthwick.