Crowded Cree language school to expand onto front lawn

With enrolment now projected to pass 520 students this fall, St. Frances Cree language school is bulldozing its front yard, to make room for four portable classrooms.

Enrolment will exceed 500 students this fall at Saskatoon's St. Frances School

Roberta McIntyre and her nine-year-old daughter Danyka stand in front of the only playground at St. Frances School. There are currently more than 450 students at the school, with another 74 preschoolers on site at the Saskatoon Tribal Council's early learning centre. (CBC)

Saskatoon's only Catholic Cree language school is about to bulldoze its front lawn, to make more room for classrooms.

Roberta McIntyre watched students as they ran outside after lunch to take turns on the school's only playground structure. Others played in the dirt, and clung to the school fence.

"You know they're making the best with what they got, but it's not enough for them," said McIntyre, who is fluent in Cree, and currently has two children and two grandchildren attending St. Frances. 

"They deserve better. They need better," she said. 

Before St. Frances School opened its Cree language program eight years ago, it had fewer than 100 students. English students now make up a minority in the school, with the majority of students enrolled in its Cree language program. 

Now, enrolment has passed 450 students, and is expected to exceed 520 students this fall. 
St. Frances School is about to bulldoze its front yard, to make room for four portable classrooms. The school has requested $16 million from the province, to either renovate St. Frances, or to build a new school. (CBC)

For the past three years, Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools has been asking for money to either renovate St. Frances, or build an entirely new school.

That $16-million request is on the Ministry of Education's top 10 list of capital priorities, but there was no money for it this year.

Instead, the province allotted $1.72 million to add four portable classrooms this spring. 

You get more kids, where are you going to put them? On the roof?- Roberta McIntyre, parent

Principal Darren Fradette says that should alleviate overcrowding in the school this year, but his school has the smallest gym in Saskatoon's Catholic system.

Sixty staff share two bathroom stalls, and a growing number of students must share the school's existing washrooms.

"We work with what we have control over. All the staff do a good job of maximizing space for learning," said Fradette. 
St. Frances School principal Darren Fradette says spaces including the playground and the gym are becoming increasingly crowded, as enrolment in his school's Cree language program grows. (CBC)

"It clearly is an indication of the demand that our families value a place where their kids can come to learn the Cree language and the Cree culture." 

Fradette said events such as the school's culture days and traditional Cree feasts used to take place on the front lawn, Those will have to move to another space once the portables are up, although Fradette says holding them off-site is not ideal.

"We want to be able to host at the school," said Fradette. "We want families at the school and we want to accommodate them comfortably."

Saskatoon Tribal Council Chief Felix Thomas believes another Cree language school is needed, possibly on the city's west side to reduce the need for students to travel from all over the city. 
Buses line up outside St. Frances School in Saskatoon. The new provincial budget is allocating $250,000 to determine the scope of a replacement for the elementary school. (Eric Anderson/CBC)

He said overcrowded conditions can increase stresses on the learning environment. 

"What we really need to do is give some real consideration to not only the overcrowding, but what happens in terms of health and safety of those kids, and making sure that they have adequate space not only to play, but in the school itself," he said. 

Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools has considered opening a second location for Cree language programs, but says there's simply no room to expand at any of its other schools, either. 

Priscilla Wolf's son attends St. Frances. She's also concerned about children's health and well-being, in such a crowded space. He was recently injured playing basketball outside, on a rocky area attached to the main playground.

"Every recess the kids have to compete for play space," said Wolf. "It's very crowded and can be dangerous. Luckily he didn't break his toe, just bruised it bad."

"There aren't very many spaces to run and play," said McIntyre, who believes a new school is the best solution. "You get more kids, where are you going to put them? On the roof?"