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Students, parents rally against plan to move Whitehorse arts program to new school

A group of students and parents rallied outside Yukon's Education Department on Monday afternoon, to protest a plan to move some Whitehorse high school students to different facilities this fall.

Students in the Music, Arts and Drama program at the Wood Street Centre to study elsewhere this fall

Students in the Music, Arts and Drama (MAD) program at the Wood Street Centre in Whitehorse gathered Monday to protest the government's plan to temporarily move the program to other schools this fall. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

A protest led by students and parents on Monday in Whitehorse saw COVID-19 masks and theatre masks side by side.

The group was rallying outside Yukon's Education Department to challenge the territorial government's plan to move some Whitehorse high school students to study in different facilities this fall.

Earlier this month, the Department of Education announced its plan for the upcoming school year. Part of that plan will see students in the Music, Arts and Drama (MAD) program at the Wood Street Centre move from that facility to space at Porter Creek Secondary School and F.H. Collins Secondary School. Grade 8 students from F.H. Collins will move to the Wood Street Centre.  

The MAD program is an experiential learning program that provides Grade 9 and 10 students with an alternative to the regular school curriculum.

Protesters said the plan to move the MAD program is a bad one.

"We want parents to know that this is not OK for the Yukon government to unilaterally make these decisions about us, without us," said parent Diane Chandler, who organized the protest.

Chandler says the program changed her daughter's life. She said her daughter had been in a regular high school, and struggled with a lot of anxiety.

"She just did not work well in a mainstream setting. She's a very artistic, creative individual," Chandler said.

"When she got into MAD, this kid completely turned her life around and is now a straight-A student, doesn't miss any classes, and is part of a family and community there."

Chandler said parents and students are concerned that moving the program out of the Wood Street Centre will fundamentally change it for the worse. She says the Wood Street Centre offers a dedicated safe space for creative-minded students to be themselves. She's afraid that will be lost if those students move to other high schools.

Students in the MAD program in 2019. (Submitted by Mary Sloan)

"They're all there for the same reasons, and they're all in a space where they feel loved, secure and welcome," Chandler added. "And by putting them into the mainstream school ... they're not going to have that, I can guarantee you."

Luca Squires, a MAD student who's going into Grade 10, was among the protesters on Monday. He hopes to pursue a career in acting.

"The MAD program has presented a lot of great opportunities. And the equipment that they have at Wood Street specifically is just amazing," he said.

"And moving to [Porter Creek Secondary School], with just the smaller space — it's not ideal, definitely."

'We're not like a normal class'

Corinna Johnston is a MAD program alumna and agrees that the Wood Street Centre is where it should stay. Johnston was in the program in the 1990s, and went on to work for many years with Cirque du Soleil.

"It was really important for us to be able to have a space, because we're not like a normal class. We don't sit in desks," she said.

"We need space to be able to create, and the space is away from other people. And I think if that gets taken away, it's going to lose a lot of its value."

In a written statement last week, Education Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee said the MAD students "will have all of the places and spaces that they need, all of the equipment that they need."

Protesters on Monday wore masks and waved signs outside the Education Department building in Whitehorse's Riverdale neighbourhood. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

She said her department was working on plans for the relocations, including moving all equipment and supplies to the new locations.

Chandler is not satisfied though. She's afraid the move is the "nail in the coffin" for the MAD program. 

She says she and others have written to the government, but didn't get much of a response.

"Nothing, just the standard letter of, 'OK, we received your complaint and we'll get back to you,'" she said.

"We just feel like we're being left out."

With files from Dave White, Roch Shannon Fraser and Philippe Morin

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