Learning curve: Edmonton's high schools are running out of room
Building boom has calmed overcrowding for younger students. Now the race is on for more high school spaces
Edmonton: The New Capital is a special series taking the pulse of the city. From Terwillegar to Castle Downs, CBC journalists are talking to people about how Edmonton is changing and what it means for the future.
Two new public schools — Kim Hung School and Shauna May Seneca School — finally opened their doors to students this month.
The openings were great news for patient parents and their children, who have endured crowded conditions as they waited out construction delays this fall.
Grade 6 student Milton Barran used to attend Bessie Nichols school, which he said was overflowing with 30 students per class.
He was supposed to start at Kim Hung School in September but spent the fall at Michael Phair School because of construction delays.
"When we actually got there on the first day, it was so cool," he said.
A record number of 14 new schools, nine public and five in the Catholic district, opened in September, accommodating more than 6,500 students from kindergarten through grade nine.
Now the looming challenge is an upcoming crunch at city high schools.
Some parents wonder if the relief they are feeling at new classroom spaces will be short-lived — and whether their children will face overcrowding and boundary issues all over again in a few years.
"Where are all these children going?" said Amy Barrett, who has a son in Grade 4 at Kim Hung School.
Rapidly growing new neighbourhoods in the southern edges of the city are driving the most need for new schools.
"The growth we're experiencing in southeast and southwest Edmonton is unprecedented," says Boris Radyo, assistant superintendent of educational planning for the Edmonton Catholic School District.
New Catholic schools in those parts of the city are about 80 per cent full, with planners expecting they will reach maximum capacity in three years or less.
In a February report, the public district said it would need 501 additional high school spaces in 2021 — and more than 6,000 additional spaces in 2025.
"There's going to be a crunch in 2021," says Michelle Draper, chair of the public school board.
New buildings needed
Every year, school districts submit capital plans to the Alberta government detailing their wish-lists of school construction and modernization projects.
Edmonton public has received money to build a new high school in the southwest Heritage Valley neighbourhood — but one new high school won't be enough to solve the space problem.
The first phase of that building, which has a price tag of $79 million, will house 1,800 students. A $9-million expansion will add room for 600 more.
But the district has hopes to build two more high schools — one in the southeast neighbourhood of Silver Berry, and one in the southwest area of Riverview.
"It is critical that we get an announcement in a fairly short time period so that we can get busy with construction of a second school," says Lorne Parker, executive director of infrastructure for Edmonton public schools.
The impending space shortage worries parents, many of whom have taken their young children to crowded elementary schools.
"Our primary concern is where they are going to high school," said Danita MacDonald, who lives in Blackburne. Her daughter is in Grade 3 and her son is in Grade 6 at Roberta MacAdams School.
When there was a school boundary change, her son lost bus access to Johnny Bright School in Rutherford. So MacDonald altered her work schedule in order to drive him to school.
Next year when it's time for him to start junior high, he won't go back to Johnny Bright — which is closest to her home — but instead will trek to his designated school, D.S. MacKenzie Junior High, which is about eight kilometres away.
But MacDonald is already looking down the road to Grade 10. The new high school in Heritage Valley won't be ready by the time he is ready to attend, and MacDonald knows that other southside high schools — Lillian Osborne and Harry Ainlay — are already packed.
The Catholic district's Radyo agrees that high school space is a concern, and he figures the district would likely add another high school soon to its capital plan.
The pinch will be slightly offset by a high school completion centre being planned for Lewis Farms. The district has received $1 million in design funding for that project.
Both the Catholic and public districts are making space in older high schools by expanding or modernizing them.
At Holy Trinity High School in southeast Edmonton, 400 spaces are being added; at Mother Margaret Mary High School in the Terwillegar area, room is being made for another 150 students.
These additions will help, but both districts are also considering alternative solutions. For Catholic school students, that could mean modular classrooms, attendance boundary changes and ancillary spaces — such as food labs — being used as regular classrooms.
For students in the public district, it could mean more online learning, summer school, night school or travelling further to attend classes at another high school.
"If that is the preference of the student," Draper adds about the final option.
About half of students in the public district already go to high schools outside their attendance zones.
School districts are also exploring partnerships and funding opportunities with the city and developers.
Changing student population, changing design
In addition to enrolment increases, school districts are also grappling with changing student needs.
Thirty-five per cent of the public district's 95,642 students need special supports and/or help to learn English.
In the Catholic district, the percentage of ESL learners grew from nine per cent a decade ago to 23 per cent this school year.
Parker says new schools are designed to accommodate a broader range of learning styles. Classrooms have chairs and desks of different heights and styles and removable, garage-door-style walls. The rooms are bright and open — meant to encourage group work.
"Teaching really has become a very collaborative endeavour and our new school construction reflects that," Draper says.
Danita MacDonald loves the design of Roberta MacAdams School, which opened in September of 2016. She said her children's school is calm and relaxing with bean bag chairs and twinkle lights. Kids work on projects in the hallways.
"I'm not a very soft person," she says, "but I cried in the library the first time I went into that school."
Read more stories from Edmonton: The New Capital on cbc.ca/edmonton or listen to CBC Radio One, 93.9 FM/740 AM.