Edmonton Catholic board policy could derail commencement ceremony for some students

Edmonton Catholic school students who meet all the legal requirements to graduate from Grade 12 could be asked not to walk across the stage at their own commencement ceremonies unless they've completed nine religion credits.

Students who meet all legal requirements may not make it on their school's grad list without religion credits

Austin Zubko was told he wouldn't be on the grad list at school because he hadn't completed all his religion credits. (Roberta Bell/CBC)

Edmonton Catholic school students who meet all the legal requirements to graduate from Grade 12 could be asked not to walk across the stage at their own commencement ceremonies unless they've completed nine religion credits.

"We believe that this is who we are," said Lori Nagy, spokesperson for Edmonton Catholic Schools.

"This is a Catholic school district and we feel that it's part of a complete Catholic education to have religion from kindergarten to Grade 12."

But one Edmonton Catholic school board trustee wants to see an end to the practice.

Marilyn Bergstra brought forward a motion at the April 18 board meeting to allow all students who have met the legal requirements for Grade 12 to take part in their commencement ceremonies.

But the motion was removed from the agenda without debate, according to Bergstra.

She said forbidding students from full participation in their own graduation brings unnecessary stress to those students and their families.

"Why put a child through that?" she asked. "Let them enjoy the celebration. They earned it, they deserve it if they have legally met all the requirements. Let's allow them to celebrate those milestones they've achieved."

Students missing out on a rite of passage

Former Alberta education minister Thomas Lukaszuk also wants to see an end to asking students not to cross the stage.

He has a daughter in Grade 12 at Archbishop MacDonald High School.

The school's handbook reads, "Students wishing to participate in the Archbishop MacDonald Catholic High School Graduation ceremonies must obtain nine credits in Religious Studies."

"When I learned this I was quite disturbed by this," Lukaszuk said. "This is not an Alberta Education requirement. One graduates from Alberta Education, not from the Catholic school board."

Lukaszuk said participating in commencement is a rite of passage.

"You complete your 100 credits and you get to graduate and there is usually an event associated with this," he said. "It's a proud moment, not only for the student, but for entire families."

Nagy said not completing religion wouldn't prevent a student from attending the graduation banquet or getting grad photographs taken at the school.

But she defended the policy of keeping students from crossing the stage to get their diploma at commencement.

"The expectation is as of Grade 10 that, yes, we know that you have lots on your plate, but it's an expectation that religion would be one of those priorities," she said.

Policy needs to be more transparent

Austin Zubko, a Grade 12 student at St. Joseph High School, said the policy should be made more clear to students and their families.

He was told he had to take all of the religion classes before he could get on the grad list.

He had missed one year of religion because of illness.

Finally, he said, he was allowed on the grad list even though he hadn't completed all nine credits.

"Throughout that entire time I was unsure if I was going to be on, if I was even going to be able to go get the mandatory classes because I had been sick the year prior so I was unable to complete the classes and it was just a very confusing mess," he said, adding that something needs to change with the process.

Excluding a student for not completing religion seems not only unfair, but inappropriate, said Lukaszuk.

"This is a requirement imposed by the school board," he said. "Perhaps they know a lot of students wouldn't take religion and their parents wouldn't make them take religion."

He's not buying the argument that students who don't want to take religion shouldn't go to a Catholic school.

"There are many non-Catholics in Catholic schools," he said. "There are a lot of Muslims, for example, who choose Catholic education as an option. It speaks more to the fact that religion is used as a weapon than a voluntary subject."

Bergstra isn't sure what will have to happen in the future to get the nine-credit rule discontinued.

"I'm not sure how this would go," she said. "In the 10 years I've been a trustee, I've never seen this ... I even sit on the agenda-setting committee as the vice-chair. I'm not sure what will be relayed in terms of asking to have it put on again."



About the Author

Nola Keeler

Nola Keeler is an award-winning journalist who has worked with CBC in Whitehorse, Yukon and Edmonton since 2000. She has worked as a host, reporter, news reader and producer for CBC. Send story ideas to nola.keeler@cbc.ca.