École Father Jan will close its doors for good this June 30, St. Albert’s Catholic trustees have decided — a move that has left some parents saddened and frustrated.
Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools trustees voted unanimously Jan. 9 to close École Father Jan on June 30, 2023, and to have its Kindergarten to Grade 4 students move to École Marie Poburan this September.
The board also voted to move Father Jan and Poburan’s Grade 5 and 6 students to École Secondaire Ste. Marguerite d’Youville (ESSMY) this September.
These moves would gather all the district’s single-track French Immersion students onto a single site, with K-4 students attending Poburan before moving to ESSMY for Grades 5-9.
The board also voted to seek government money through its capital plan to demolish the Father Jan building and to notify families of these changes.
These decisions came following a year-long conversation with the GSACRD community on how to address the district’s low school utilization rates, which were affecting its operations and maintenance funding. A working group distilled those ideas into three proposals presented at open houses last November, one of which was to close Father Jan and move its students to Poburan.
On Jan. 9, the board voted to have administration take the other two proposals (which aimed to raise utilization rates at Holy Family Catholic and Albert Lacombe by eliminating classrooms) under advisement.
In an interview following these votes, board chair Joe Becigneul emphasized that closing Father Jan received the most support from staff and parents amongst the three options. The Father Jan building was in bad shape (being 67 years old) and too expensive to repair. Low utilization rates in the district meant the province was unlikely to approve a replacement building.
“We have to get our utilization numbers up,” Becigneul said, and closing Father Jan would improve use rates at ESSMY and Poburan.
GSACRD superintendent Clint Moroziuk told the board that Father Jan was at 51 per cent capacity, which was projected to fall to 45 per cent this fall. Merging it with Poburan could reduce costs and create more chances for collaboration. The school’s Nature Kindergarten and sports academy programs would continue.
Trustees heard that it was not yet clear how this merger would affect staffing or transportation at the three affected schools.
Sad, but resigned
Father Jan is the second oldest school in operation in St. Albert, according to The Black Robe’s Vision, having started out in 1948 in what is now called The Little White School on Mission Hill. (St. Albert’s oldest operating school is St. Albert Catholic High, which started in 1909 as one room in the now-demolished Brick School.) The current Father Jan building was constructed in 1956 and now hosts about 167 students.
Parent Erika Kobewka was one of the roughly 20 parents and teachers filling the gallery at the Jan. 9 meeting. She said she was not surprised by the board’s decision.
“There’s a multitude of feelings, but the overarching one is one of sadness and the end of something tremendously special.”
Kobewka said she had three children enrolled at Father Jan, a school they picked due to its historic significance. Poburan was much further away, and she was unsure if she would want to send her kids there this fall.
Father Jan principal Evan Holstein said the board’s decision was disappointing, especially as he had kids in Father Jan, but also an amazing opportunity to create an all-French campus. He was unsure how the school would commemorate the Father Jan legacy — they could name part of Poburan after Father Alphonse Jan, or salvage the St. Francis carving on the front of the building.
ESSMY/Poburan parent Helen Jamieson said she was frustrated by the board’s decision, as this was the second time one of her kids would be directly affected by the board’s push to raise utilization rates. (One of her kids was moved to St. Albert Catholic High after the board closed ESSMY’s high school program in 2020.) She said it felt that the board was picking on French Immersion schools when it came to raising utilization rates.
“None of the other schools are being asked to make these changes and sacrifices.”
Becigneul rejected the idea that the board was picking on French Immersion, and argued that this move would strengthen the program by focusing resources for it onto a single site.
“I see that as a tremendous opportunity.”