'We need to start now': Grande Prairie public schools want a jump on booming population

The Grande Prairie Public School District is trying to get ahead of a growth spurt in enrolment by advocating for enough new schools to keep up with the city's booming population.

Up to 3 new schools needed as enrolment expected to increase by 1,000 before 2021.

More than 8,300 students are enrolled at the 18 public schools in Grande Prairie. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

The Grande Prairie Public School District wants to get ahead of a growth spurt in enrolment by advocating for enough new schools to keep up with the city's booming population.

Since 2010, enrolment has risen by more than 20 per cent, said district superintendent Sandy McDonald. Last year, the student body increased by about three per cent. 

"What was surprising is how fast we grew."

Grande Prairie Public School District superintendent Sandy McDonald estimates that up to three new schools will be needed in the area to keep up with population growth. 1:18

The numbers are in line with the growing population of Grande Prairie.

The city's population surpassed 62,000 in 2016, up by more than 13 per cent over five years, according to 2016 census data. Nearly one-third of the people living in Grande Prairie in 2016 were younger than 19. 

In response, Alberta Education announced funding for a number of projects in the city, including school replacements and modernization.

The public school district has opened three new schools since 2016.

"The biggest challenge that everybody thinks of is space," McDonald said. "The other challenge is catching up to that growth with infrastructure, with our maintenance and operations, with teacher recruitment."

Getting ahead of the curve

More than 8,300 students are enrolled at the city's 18 public schools. By 2021, the district estimates enrolment will increase to 9,350.

Modular classrooms, also known as portables, have helped accommodate some growth. There have been as many as 19 temporary structures at a time set up outside of a single school.

"It was a school within a school — or, I guess a school beside a school is a better way to put it," McDonald said.

Modular classrooms may fit more students, McDonald said, but they don't reduce strain on libraries, gymnasiums and administrative offices.

"When you add a few modular classrooms, it's not too bad. But when you have to add a lot it makes it a little more challenging for some of those common areas."

The public school district is reviewing its schools and enrolment rates to draft a proposal for the province, requesting more schools ahead of expected population growth.

"We're trying to identify what the future holds," McDonald said. "The growth that we're facing suggests that we're going to need to continue to add (schools)."

The public school district needs at least one new elementary school within the next three years, McDonald said. If growth continues, the district will also ask for two or three additional schools throughout the city.

Each new school takes about three years to build, McDonald said, which adds impetus to get started now "working with our principals, working with our school communities, to identify what we can expect within that community."

Alberta Education Minister David Eggen said his department is committed to funding the province's school districts as they grow.

"One of our biggest priorities is funding new schools and school modernizations across Alberta," Eggen wrote in an email to CBC News. "I'm proud of the investments our government has made in the education system."

About the Author

Zoe Todd

Video Journalist

Zoe Todd is a CBC video journalist based in Alberta, filing videos and stories for web, radio and TV.