Overcrowded schools in Seven Oaks division has students in portables, hallways

Many students in the Seven Oaks School Division in Winnipeg are heading back to overcrowded schools and unconventional classrooms.

Hallways and conference rooms are being turned into classroom space at Amber Trails Community School

Saskatchewan will be rolling out a new $1.2 million mental health initiative this fall, bringing mental health workers into schools to deliver services. Pilot sites have yet to be announced. (Tom Woodward/Flickr Creative Commons)

Many students in the Seven Oaks School Division in Winnipeg are heading back to overcrowded schools and unconventional classrooms.

Amber Trails Community School was built two years ago for 600 kindergarten to Grade 8 students but it will open Wednesday with 770 students.

In order to accommodate everyone, the division's superintendent said a conference room has been converted into a music room, classrooms have been crafted out of temporary walls and some homerooms are operating in hallway space.

"We're refusing entrance to new students and busing them to other schools to go to school in portables," said superintendent Brian O'Leary.

"We're telling people who live a block away from the school and who bought a home that there isn't room for your child at this school and we'll have to bus them to a different school."

According to O'Leary, the division has seen an increase of 3,000 students over the past decade but new schools have only been built to accommodate 1,000 students.

He said while teachers continue to provide excellent instruction in spite of capacity issues, there are challenges that come with an increased reliance on portable classrooms.

Strain on facilities

"It's straining washrooms, it's straining gym space," he said. "It's straining some of the core facilities of the school." 

Additions are planned for Amber Trails School and West Kildonan Collegiate next year but O'Leary says in the interim he would like to see the province approve the construction of more new schools.

"The province has really been cautious about approving facilities until it's guaranteed that they're going to be full but we could fill a new school tomorrow and would like to get ahead of the curve if we could."

Several other schools within the division have portable classrooms on their property; there are six at Arthur E. Wright School, 10 at École Leila North, six at École James Nisbet, seven at O.V. Jewitt Community School and one at Elmwood High School.

"Other school divisions might have a crowded area but they've also got space in other areas. We don't have space in other areas," O'Leary said. "We'd emptied some portables with the opening of two new schools; we're now in the process of filling them up and bussing kids who are close to school to schools that are farther away to fill them." 

Province to build new school in 2019

A spokesperson for the province said a kindergarten to Grade 5 school is in the works for Seven Oaks School Division, with building set to begin in 2019. 

"We recognize the need for additional capacity in the Amber Trails area. The pressures we are facing today in the public school system point directly to a failure of the previous NDP government to address the growth in enrolment we have seen in many areas of the province," wrote the spokesperson in a statement.

O'Leary said government officials will not approve any new schools until a study examining public and private school partnerships are complete. The provincial spokesperson said the study will be finished at the end of the year.

O'Leary said the division owns a 10-acre property in Amber Gate and is ready to build if they get the approval. 

Meanwhile, he says he is offering reassurance and advice to concerned parents.

"We're doing our best and if they'd like the province to hurry up they should talk to their MLA," he said.