Parents fight closure of Wetaskiwin County school at heart of rural community

For nearly 70 years, Gwynne School has served its namesake hamlet and surrounding area in eastern Wetaskiwin County.

Gwynne School closed after structural issues identified

The Gwynne School was first built in 1953. The all-wood construction has seen generations of families pass through its halls. (Stephen Cook/CBC)

For nearly 70 years, Gwynne School has served its namesake hamlet and surrounding area in eastern Wetaskiwin County.

The kindergarten to Grade 8 school had 91 students enrolled last September, including Greg Ambler's two daughters in grades 5 and 3. It's a multi-generational legacy — both Ambler and his father also attended the school.

Ambler remembers picking the kids up the first Friday of last October.

"As we're walking back to my truck that day, Jordy looks up and she says, 'Dad, I don't want the weekend.' She says, 'I want to go to school tomorrow.'" 

Soon after, the family received a notice: the school was shutting down. The board of Wetaskiwin Regional Public Schools had ordered a temporary closure after receiving a report from an architectural firm highlighting structural and fire safety concerns.

Gwynne School's students were moved to another school in the city of Wetaskiwin, a short distance away.

A group of parents is now fighting to reopen the school, pushing the board to commit resources to re-fitting and re-establishing an important hub for the rural community.

Almost 800 people have signed an online petition and dozens of signatures have been collected from within the community for a letter crafted by the Gwynne Parent Council Association.

"It takes a community to raise children and we want ours to be raised here in Gwynne," it reads.

Second opinion

In November, the board — with new members since the election on Oct. 18 — ordered a second opinion from another architectural firm.

It also organized a virtual town hall in January with George Berry from Berry Architecture, who prepared a report finalized in September. Parents questioned the immediacy of the shutdown and the severity of deficiencies outlined in the report.

The next month, the board passed a resolution that the division work with authorities to report on the essential requirements and associated costs with returning students to the school.

A preliminary estimate pegged the costs at $3.9 million with a timeline of two years.

Gwynne School was emptied of students after the previous board voted to temporarily close the structure in October. (Stephen Cook/CBC)

Trustee Karen Becker, acting board chair for Wetaskiwin Regional Public Schools, said in an emailed statement the board is awaiting further reports to help inform decision-making.

She said the Gwynne area has been listed as a priority for a new school with a larger catchment area in the division's new three-year capital plan.

Ambler said the possibility of a new school is little comfort.

"By the time they start building the school to the time the school is completed, my kids are probably going to be heading off towards high school."

Severing ties

Since the closure of Gwynne School, its students have been attending Clear Vista School in Wetaskiwin, about 10 kilometres west of the hamlet.

Students have stayed within the classes established at Gwynne, but the Wetaskiwin school has several hundred students.

Meaghan McInnes-Hurd, whose two children attended Gwynne School, said that has meant bus travel and more anxiety as they adjust to their new settings. 

"They were scared even about getting lost in the new school because it's so much bigger," she said.

Last week, families were informed Gwynne School would not be reopening for the fall. Clear Vista will instead prepare to incorporate Gwynne students into the general population.

Meaghan McInnes-Hurd is concerned about the impact the school's closure could have on community ties. (Stephen Cook/CBC)

McInnes-Hurd worries it signals the end of Gwynne School and the severing of community ties.

"If the school doesn't reopen, the community is going to fall apart," she said.

McInnes-Hurd predicts families — spread throughout the rural area beyond the boundaries of Gwynne's small 93-person population — will seek out the nearest schools within disparate divisions.

"And then those connections are lost," she said. "We don't live in a community where you can just … walk over to your neighbour's house to play."