Independent schools in the Alberni Valley are waiting for the fallout from School District 70’s Grade reconfiguration and school closure talks.
According to School District 70 superintendent Cam Pinkerton there are more than 1,300 fewer students in the public school district this year than a decade ago.
“We have lost students to John Paul II Catholic School and to Haahuupayak although not all of them,” Pinkerton said at a trustees meeting in January. “One of the reasons they are leaving is because of stability.”
The district doesn’t have hard numbers on how many kids exactly it has lost to independent schools. But a calculation using school participation rates gives an idea.
The participation rate is the number of students in a catchment area who attend a public school in that area. In Port Alberni, the rate is below 50 per cent; on the West Coast it is above 90 per cent. “Only John Howitt [Elementary] is above 50 per cent in the Valley,” Pinkerton said.
Low participation rate can be attributed in part to factors like students who travel to another catchment area to attend school, or who are home schooled. “But some go to independent schools,” Pinkerton said.
Haahuupayak is an independent school focused on teaching the Nuu-chah-nulth culture and language. It is located on the other side of the Somass River Bridge on Tseshaht First Nation territory.
Haahuupayak has a capacity of 144 students and there are 99 enrolled this year, financial administrator Brenda Sayers said. Enrolment, which is open to both aboriginal and non-aboriginal students, has fluctuated between 84-100 students in the past three years.
School officials are keeping an eye on the progress of district school closure and reconfiguration talks, Sayers said. “The district has called a meeting with some groups in town and the school is sending representatives to participate.”
The school teaches in a K-6 format and officials are pondering switching to a K-7 format next year, “but it will depend on what comes out of this meeting and other factors,” she said.
Funding for off-reserve students has increased, and along with a new funding transfer agreement with the Tseshaht First Nation, Haahuupayak is on more level playing field with district schools.
“Now for instance we can offer more special education assistance in class than we did before,” she said.
Across town, John Paul II Catholic School offers faith-based education in an independent setting, principal Kathy Korman said.
There are 95 students enrolled at John Paul this year and enrolment has increased in the last few years, Korman said. The school teaches in a K-8 format.
Officials at JPII are watching the district talks. “But we don’t know how it will impact us because that process isn’t finished yet, so I can’t comment at this time,” Korman said.
Home schooling is an option for parents, but switching to it midstream—rather than starting a child out home schooling in kindergarten—would be unusual, said Gary Robertson, who home schools his five children.
People usually make decisions early on about home school or public school and then stay with it, he said.
There are approximately 150 students in the Alberni Valley who are home schooled, Robertson said.
The district’s plan to close and reconfigure could change things though.
“This may be the thing that pushes people to look for other educational options,” he said.
Robertson advises parents considering home schooling to examine the option thoroughly.
“It’s not going to be more convenient,” he said. “I don’t expect to see a lot of people jumping ship.”