Cooperation is the Foundation of the Future of Catholic Education in Alberta
Recently, Paula Simons wrote in the Edmonton Journal: “It is undoubtedly maddening when Catholic and public boards across Alberta routinely refuse to cooperate on things like school construction or busing. How hard would it be, for people elected to serve children and families, to put turf wars aside and collaborate sensibly?”
I couldn’t agree more, and I want to make it clear that Catholic Education is an eager and willing partner in finding ways where Alberta’s parallel school systems can work together to improve educational outcomes for all our students.
Currently, ECSD is working on a partnership with EPSB to share the operation and costs associated with busing. EPSB and ECSD have established a joint Edmonton Student Transportation Authority or ESTA which will significantly reduce the costs of busing and lower ride times. EPSB and ECSD have agreed to establish ESTA because a preliminary study in 2014 revealed that more than a $2.5 million/year would be saved with this collaborative effort and ride times would be reduced significantly. I commend our administration for continuing to work on this partnership with EPSB so that our students get the best possible transportation service we can offer. We are following the example of Parkland Public and Evergreen Catholic school boards which already share busing.
What other administrative areas can we consider to find further efficiencies? The Alberta Catholic Schools Trustee Association in their document Catholic School Facilities in Alberta Fundamental Principles, Process and Guidelines has listed many areas of school operation where collaboration would not be considered a challenge to Catholic identity. It states:
Community Partnerships with other Catholic and Public Boards Partnerships can mean more than sharing physical space. There are many ways that the Catholic school community can benefit from partnerships that do not include actual sharing of a building. Where fiscally beneficial, sharing among divisions with Catholic schools [sic] could include:
- Curriculum development and resources
- Purchasing cooperatives
- Centralized computer services
- Waste management Accepted by Board of Directors on February 12, 2016
- Capital construction design
- Professional development services and consultants
- Personnel for specialized courses
- O, H and S (Occupational Health and Safety)
- Technology Services/Web Consulting
- Courier services
This list is not exhaustive and Catholic school divisions should continue to explore areas and services where sharing can be achieved. Where no savings are gained or inefficiencies of time and level of services are lost the purpose and value of cooperating is lost as well. Partnerships with public boards and Catholic boards can be beneficial and not inhibit the goal of Catholic education and could include:
- Software licensing
- Bulk Purchasing
- Courier services
- Sports leagues
I commend the ACSTA which has wisely suggested these various opportunities for partnerships between Catholic and Public schools. These partnerships certainly have the potential to free up education dollars to be put into the classroom where they are most needed. Minister Eggen has recently stated that “especially in tough economic times, we must all be careful with the public dollars we are entrusted with”. He goes on to say that he wants to see “every public dollar that we provide for education…be spent on supporting our students and preparing them for success”. I believe the time is ripe for our Board to consider the ACSTA recommendations. We need to ask ourselves what other ways besides transportation we can find efficiencies.
Though the ACSTA strongly oppose the sharing of facilities with non-Catholic entities, there are examples around Alberta where these shared facilities exist. In Sylvan Lake there is a partnership between the Catholic and Public school boards: Fox Run Public School and Ecole Mother Teresa exist under one roof. In 2004 a new Catholic school called St. Marguerite Bourgeoys opened in the same facility as John Wilson School in Innisfail, AB. John Wilson School was once the largest public elementary school in Alberta with 800 students. The story of how this Catholic school within a public school came to be, is an interesting one. Bill Hoppins former principal of John Wilson School shared in a Western Catholic Reporter article that the Sisters of Notre Dame (namely Sister Anna Cordeau), “tried as much as possible in a public school system to share our Catholicity and our belief in Christ, in an appropriate way.” Grade 5 students were then eventually offered a religious education with an ecumenical approach. Further concessions were made within John Wilson Public School to allow Catholic students to learn their catechism after the bell rang at 3:30 pm. Eventually a small portion of John Wilson School was leased out to begin the Catholic school. Opening in 2004 with 85 students, St. Marguerite Bourgeoys Catholic School now educates students from Pre-K to Grade 9.
From a perusal of the Marguerite Bourgeoys’ February 2017 school newsletter permeation of Catholic identity is alive and well. In their latest newsletter you will read about the religious origins of Valentine’s Day and see announcements for upcoming First Reconciliation and Communion classes as well as Confirmation classes. The school calendar included in the newsletter, ensures that their students are aware of Ash Wednesday, the First Sunday of Lent, World Day of Prayer, Faith PD Day, and when the Grade 6 Stations of the Cross will take place. So the concern that such public – Catholic facilities could lead to a weakening of Catholic identity doesn’t seem to hold true.
Soon after the Catholic – Public schools of Innisfail and Sylvan Lake opened, the Alberta Catholic School Trustees Association made a new policy to discourage such partnerships in their “Fundamental Principles”. Briefly, the policy states that
The ACSTA and its member boards oppose the joint use of school buildings with public school boards in any manner that has the effect of undermining or interrupting the full permeation of Catholic values and beliefs.
I recommend that the ECSD Board of Trustees request that the ACSTA study the Innisfail and Sylvan Lake examples of public – Catholic partnerships and see if indeed after thirteen years the quality of Catholic identity is significantly different and less authentic in these schools compared to free standing Catholic Schools elsewhere in the province.
In recent weeks I have come to learn of many other Catholic- public partnerships around the province. In a Feb. 7, 2017 Edmonton Sun article, Janet French reports that
“The Nisku-based Black Gold School Division runs Roman Catholic religion classes as an option at five of its schools in Beaumont, said superintendent Norman Yanitski. The classes have been running for more than 20 years, he said.”
St. Paul Regional School Board and Conseil Scolaire Centre Nord are examples of shared Catholic – public Francophone school boards that exist in the province. As well, I have learned that Rocky View Public and Fort Vermillion Public School Boards administer Catholic schools under their umbrella. These are the many ways Albertans have used their creativity and innovation to provide Catholic schools and Catholic programming in partnership with public school boards across the province.
It seems to me then, that if ECSD has an opportunity in an area of the city to keep a Catholic presence available to Catholic students by sharing a facility with EPSB which is also suffering from lack of students, a shared approach seems feasible. I am thinking specifically of the South East area of the city where in 2015 our administration recommended that we close 4 aging Catholic schools. This is an area where Edmonton Public has had to close several schools (e.g. Gold Bar public elementary). St. Gabriel elementary school which is closely associated with St. Michael Resurrection Parish narrowly missed being closed in the 2015 round of closures. Our administration recommended closure because of the decreasing student population as well as the significant infrastructure dollars required to keep the school up to code. If this school were to close, the connection between school, parish and home would be lost and only St. Brendan school would remain as a Catholic school presence in the whole South East portion of the city. Certainly we should be able to find ways we can work with Edmonton Public to continue offering Catholic programming in our communities, keeping schools open, reducing yellow bus ride times, and reducing costs for both Boards.
In conclusion, I believe that we should explore with the Alberta Catholic School Trustees Association ways in which we can show Albertans that as Catholics we are aware of our province’s fiscal realities and that we are willing partners in education. As leaders in education we need to impress upon Albertans that we will use our creativity, innovation and good will to find efficiencies that will allow Catholic education to continue in our province.
I therefore recommend the following:
That the Board of Trustees at their March 21, 2017 public Board meeting agree that given the tough fiscal position our province finds itself in and given the fact that we are committed to putting kids first, Edmonton Catholic Schools will:
- support our commitment to permeation of faith in the classroom and reaffirm our confidence in the Catholic teachings that take place there
- collaborate with municipalities, health centres, libraries, community leagues, post- secondary institutions, and other K-12 learning institutions including public and francophone school boards in sharing efficiencies in transportation and operational matters according to the ACSTA Document Catholic School Facilities in Alberta Fundamental Principles, Process and Guidelines
- advocate to the Alberta Catholic School Trustees Association to repeal policies that constrain collaboration and opportunities of working together with non – Catholic school districts. The portion of the Fundamental Principles that we would specifically request to be amended are:
- Free-standing Catholic schools on separate sites have a long and successful history in this province and remain the standard for Catholic educational facilities.
- The ACSTA and its member boards oppose the joint use of school buildings with public school boards in any manner that has the effect of undermining or interrupting the full permeation of Catholic values and beliefs.