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School board grapples with space crunch

Students at two public schools face relocation

By: Kevin Ma

  |  Posted: Saturday, Feb 22, 2014 06:00 am

FULL SCHOOLS – St. Albert Public Schools is looking at moving some students to alleviate overcrowding at Leo Nickerson and E.S. Gish schools.
FULL SCHOOLS – St. Albert Public Schools is looking at moving some students to alleviate overcrowding at Leo Nickerson and E.S. Gish schools.
FILE PHOTO/St. Albert Gazette

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Students at two St. Albert public schools may have to change locations this fall as the school district grapples with a space crunch.

Parents met with administrators from St. Albert Public Schools earlier this month to debate how to head off a looming space crunch at Leo Nickerson Elementary and Elmer S. Gish schools.

“We’re at 90 per cent utilization,” superintendent Barry Wowk said of the district’s schools, and 85 per cent is considered full for a school.

“We have precious little room,” he added.

The space crunch is most pronounced at Nickerson and Gish, both of which have grown by about 34 per cent since 2010, he said.

Part of this was due to St. Albert’s growth, which had contributed to an 18 per cent hike in the district’s K-to-4 population in the last five years.

Nickerson and Gish are also the only ones in the district to offer two popular and rapidly-growing programs – the academics-focused Cogito program and the Christian Logos program. Nickerson also has a popular French immersion program.

The problem isn’t so much class size but a lack of rooms for classes, said board chair Gerry Martins. It’s not so bad now, since the district received several portables earlier this school year, but if the district sees another spike in enrolment this fall, the pressure will be back on.

“This is more of a precautionary measure,” he said.

While the district is slated to receive six more portables next year, those wouldn’t necessarily solve the problem, Martins said. He noted that portables add classroom space but not gym or washroom capacity.

“The core of a school can only look after so many students,” he said, adding that Nickerson and Gish are both pretty much maxed out on portables.

Wowk said the upcoming Lois E. Hole Elementary School should help Nickerson, as the district plans to put a new French immersion program in the new school, but the facility isn’t scheduled to open until 2016.

What to move where

The district has come up with nine potential solutions, Wowk said. As none of the district’s schools can hold all the Cogito or Logos students, each of these solutions would involve a class or two of students at most.

The district could let some regular Gish students transfer to Lorne Akins, for example, or shuffle some classes to Paul Kane or Sir George Simpson. It could also start new Cogito or French immersion programs at other schools. All of these solutions could lead to a loss of students or higher transportation fees.

Donna Nilsson, chair of the Nickerson school council, blames the province rather than the board for this situation.

“Our schools were full, and are getting fuller,” she said, and the new Lois Hole school will likely be full as soon as it opens. “All of this has happened as a result of a lack of infrastructure provided by the provincial government.”

Nilsson urged parents to lobby their MLAs to address this issue.

“We need more school buildings in the city of St. Albert,” she said.

Administrators are now seeking comments from parents and will report their decision to the board by the end of April, Martins said.

Any changes will not take effect until this September, and will aim to affect the fewest number of students possible, Wowk said.

“It’s probably going to involve some last minute decisions,” he said.

The board will then have to make a bigger decision on what to do with Gish, which is bursting with about 700 students, Wowk said.

Expect another space crunch to hit soon after the Lois Hole school opens, Martins said.

“There’s no question in my mind that St. Albert Public Schools will need another K-to-6 or K-to-9 school very soon.”

Visit for details on the space crunch.


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