Wednesday, April 23, 2014


To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed....

George Orwell, 1984

Wonderful news! The progressive folks in the provincial government have finally seen the light, and are committing to supporting mature communities! To think that just a few years ago the standard procedure was to euthanize the weakest schools and transport the students out of their neighbourhoods and pack them into the next closest school. Now we have the promise of a brand new replacement school in one of three mature Edmonton neighbourhoods. After pouring all new money into modern schools in expanding suburban circles, the core gets some respect at last.

This is quite a transformation, from indiscriminately closing its enrolment-challenged schools (always, always in central areas), to a two-year closure moratorium, to thinking about "amalgamations" last year, and now to this year's replacement schools to support older neighbourhoods, beginning with one of the "greater" Highlands, Lawton or Westmount areas. The new replacement school is projected to be a K-9 with a capacity around 600, at a cost of around $20 million. According to the website they could be modern, accessible, environmentally friendly and include space for day care or other services. And at the bottom of the page is a reassurance that "the replaced schools could continue to serve the current and future needs of the community in other ways."

So, what's the problem?

First, the plan involves closing three schools, and that's just for starters. This could be an annual thing, potentially three closures per year. On the EPSB website the word "close" does not appear once, but that's what is happening. The community ends up with two schools less than they started. The targeted schools in "greater" Westmount in particular are dozens of blocks apart, so depending on the replacement school's location, most students would likely be forced to travel outside their own actual neighbourhood. And there's no guarantee, likely no plan, as to what happens to the closed schools. They might sit vacant, or become storage facilities as other closed schools have in the past. That's a far cry from their former status as community hubs.

Second, replacing three small or mid-sized schools with one large one falls into the same "bigger is better" fallacy that research shows is just not true (see here for much more info on this). Smaller schools provide better educational outcomes for the same or less cost, are healthier, happier, and create a better sense of community. Creating one "big box" school out of three smaller ones has the same impact as a Walmart does on local merchants.

Third, in each area there is already a school that has a capacity over 600. The Alberta program allows for money to upgrade an existing school, or build a new school, as long as three schools are "combined into" one. The EPSB video promptly forgets the existing school option: "There will be one new school to replace three schools in the chosen community." We should upgrade what we have and take some pride in our history whenever possible. Highlands and Westmount schools are both 100 years old and are grand architectural legacies that this city desperately lacks. One of my favorite schools in Edmonton is John A. McDougall in an inner-city area just north of downtown. This school was built in 1913 and modernized about ten years ago for a little over $5 million. It includes all the perks of a brand new school (elevator, wrap-around space, environmental design, modern science lab) but with the unique character of a heritage building. Too often we throw away what we could easily improve.

Fourth, EPSB administration is up to its old tricks by fudging enrolment numbers to make things look worse than they truly are. There are at least three different measures of a school's capacity. One is the provincial school capacity, which is simply based on the square footage of the entire building; this is usually the highest number and most often used when the school board wants to make a school look like it's underutilized. The second is ACOL, which is based on class sizes as recommended by the Albert Commission on Learning. This method counts the number of rooms and applies the ACOL suggested guideline (for instance, a K-3 room can accommodate 17 students, grades 4-6 should have no more than 23 per room, etc.). This formula excludes gyms, but does include all special purpose rooms like carpentry shops or music rooms. The ACOL number tends to be a little more reasonable. A third method is the Optimal Enrolment Limit, which as I understand it is based on feedback from the school's principal as to how many student will actually fit regardless of floorspace or number of rooms, and is only calculated for schools that have to restrict enrolment. OEL is the most realistic, and usually significantly lower than the other two metrics.

Only two of the nine schools have public OEL numbers: Montrose and RJ Scott. On the EPSB site Montrose is shown to have a capacity of 315 (provincial capacity number) and an enrolment of 199 (this is using the provincially adjusted student enrolment figure from the school's profile pdf). So the utilization rate is 63% - not great. But if we use the much lower OEL capacity number of 175, the utilization is 114% and the school is now over capacity. Running the numbers for RJ Scott show a similar inflation, from the "Supporting a Mature Community" claim of 52% utilization as opposed to an OEL-calculated 85%. Official capacity and utilization statistics are at best suspicious, and more likely intentionally deceitful, and this is nothing new from EPSB administration trying to build a case for school closure replacement.

[In 2008 Ritchie Junior High's official capacity was at one point listed at 900 going into a closure review. The public school closed and reopened the next year as ├ęcole Joseph-Moreau, which the Francophone school board considers close to capacity at 260. It's the same building.]

Look at how the plan is described in a recent article by a journalist who seems to have drank the kool-aid (my emphasis):

One aging Edmonton neighbourhood is about to hit the revitalization jackpot.

The Edmonton public school board has come up with a short list of three older neighbourhoods, with one of them to be awarded the one, new K-9 school that the Alberta government has allotted to be built in Edmonton’s core.

Highlands, Westmount and Beverly/Rundle Heights are the three finalists.

School board trustees will select the winning neighbourhood in June. In that community, three older, smaller and massively underutilized schools will be shut. The neighbourhood kids will all go to the new $20 million-plus school for 650 to 800 students. The new school is to be built starting this summer and to open in 2016.

I'll bet after reading this article community residents will show up to the public meetings giddy with hope that their area will be the lucky one chosen. But nothing has changed except the extreme positive spin. The word "replacement" is optimistic, right? Like "renewal" or "revitalization". Stripping the school board's website of the word "closure" does not change the fact that three schools will close under this plan. The end result of less schools in the core is the same as before the moratorium. And when you falsify the numbers on top of spinning black into white, then we are really at the point of doublethink. Ignorance is strength.

Is there an option to modernize one (or why not two or even three) of these schools without closing any? Because the province is - as usual - holding the purse strings, it's unlikely that the program is negotiable. Despite having a big new shiny toy, the chosen community will not benefit from this replacement school plan if its smaller schools are shut down. If it were up to me the school board would refuse the money if it required schools to be closed. A much better solution would be to (a) acknowledge the research supporting the value of small schools to the student, the community and the bottom line, (b) re-invest the same dollars in our existing old, beautiful buildings instead of building new, (c) try to fix struggling programs and find creative enrolment solutions instead of walking away, (d) just give local school boards the funds instead of playing political games, and (e) be honest with the numbers and communications in general.

We need to think twice about this one.


  1. Very well said & reassuring that there are people out there who understand things for how they are, not simply how they are portrayed.

  2. There is so much wrong with this approach that it's hard to know where to start. This "solution" is bucking the trend of many cities in North America, where growth is occurring in the city core. The answer is NOT to replace existing (historic!) infrastructure with a big box store school, which students would have to be bussed in from our far flung auto-dependent neighbourhoods (and the reality is that most parents drive their kids anyway). Rather, we should encourage growth and density in our historic, downtown neighbourhoods where low and high income families, seniors, and young people can all share the same space and amenities. This social make-up creates the most dynamic, vital, and environmentally sustainable neighbourhoods. So how about spending that $20 million (and all the dollars that would be spent on transporting our kids back and forth to school) on upgrading our current schools and enhancing the neighbourhoods that use them!