‘Bursting at the seams’: Halifax schools struggling with overcrowded classrooms

Click to play video: 'Halifax schools struggling to keep up with rising population'
Halifax schools struggling to keep up with rising population
Population growth has put a strain on housing in Halifax, but the pressure is being felt in schools as well. Despite a need for several new schools, the province is committing to only a few – and won’t say where they’ll be built. Zack Power reports – Mar 8, 2024

As Nova Scotia’s population continues to increase rapidly, schools in the Halifax area are struggling to accommodate an influx of new students entering the public school system.

In a September 2022 Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE) document obtained by Global News via the Nova Scotia New Democratic Party (NDP), the school district projected six to eight new schools were needed to adequately address “tremendous growth” throughout the municipality.

Since then, the Nova Scotia government has committed to building four schools in the Halifax area.

Becky Druhan, Nova Scotia’s education minister, said the “rest will flow” once the province is able to acquire certain areas for development. She said $50 million in the 2024-25 capital plan will go toward land acquisitions for the proposed schools.

“The process that we’re following is different than it has been in years before, but that’s in response to the growth,” she told reporters Thursday.

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Druhan didn’t comment on whether the four new schools will be “enough” to support the population growth in Halifax but did say she expects the province will look at building additional schools in the coming years.

When speaking to the media on Thursday, Nova Scotia premier Tim Houston said that previous governments hadn’t properly prepared for the growth it’s experiencing today.

“I think some of the major issues we face in this province is that there was no planning for growth, there was no investments in infrastructure,” he said. “That’s why we’re trying to catch up on housing. That’s why we’re trying to catch up on schools.”

The provincial government has yet to release information on where the four new schools will be built.

In response, Nova Scotia Liberal leader Zach Churchill described the government’s approach as “unfair” to residents in the Halifax area.

“We’ve got schools that are bursting at the seams and this government doesn’t have the courtesy to tell people when they’re going to get a new school, or if they’re going to get a new school,” he said on Thursday. “Parents are stressed out, students are stressed out, staff are stressed out because they’re working in schools that are flooded with people.”

Nova Scotia NDP Leader Claudia Chender also expressed her disapproval of the provincial government’s messaging regarding the development of four new schools in the HRM.

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“Our population is growing fastest in the HRM, we have a ton of aging infrastructure,” she said on Thursday. “We need at least eight schools as of two years ago … the reality is we have none. We have no prospect of getting them, and on behalf of all the families and parents I talk to every day, that is a real concern.”

8,100 new students in five years

In a statement provided to Global News on Friday, the HRCE noted student enrollment has increased by more than 8,100 students in the past five years.

“Between September 30, 2023, and March 1, 2024, we welcomed 599 new students,” said Lindsey Bunin, the school district’s communication officer, adding that 58,858 students are currently enrolled throughout Halifax’s 137 schools.

“This growth shows no signs of slowing. During the month of February, which is Registration Month in HRCE, more than 2,125 students were registered for September 2024.”

Bunin said that five new schools and 141 modular classrooms — along with upgrades to existing infrastructure — have been introduced to the Halifax area in the last six years.

“With the active support of the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, HRCE’s planning team is reviewing enrolment projections for fall and creating strategies to support the number of students we’ll welcome next school year,” she added.

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New schools still “overcrowded”

Ryan Lutes, president of the Nova Scotia Teacher’s Union (NSTU), said some schools are facing overcrowding challenges as a result of the province’s infrastructure not being entirely equipped to handle the growth.

“A lot of pressure is on some of our schools, absolutely,” he said in an interview with Global News on Friday, adding that smaller class sizes typically lead to higher student achievement.

“If you’re trying to spend time with 20 kids versus 35 students, there’s going to be a difference in the quality (of teaching) when you have a larger class size.”

Lutes said the provincial government’s modular classroom initiative has offered some support for education staff, but it still doesn’t eliminate the pressure felt elsewhere in schools.

“There’s only one gymnasium, there’s only going to be so much lab space, there’s only so much cafeteria space,” he continued. “Even if there are extra classrooms, it’s going to put more pressure on the infrastructure of the school.”

The NSTU president said although the construction for some new schools is underway, the lack of capacity issue persists.

“The new schools that are getting built are pretty much overcrowded on day one,” Lutes added. “That doesn’t leave a lot of room for growth. The number of people in a school does create pressure on teachers, administrators, and all staff and kids in that building.”

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In addition to the challenges associated with providing enough space, Lutes said the education system is facing a “teacher retention crisis” that is creating human resources challenges.

“We don’t have enough teachers … it’s one thing to have the physical building, but you need the humans,” he said.

Click to play video: 'More construction delays for Halifax elementary school project'
More construction delays for Halifax elementary school project

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