Two schools in Edmonton to deal with population explosion

 EDMONTON – For the first time in recent history, two new public schools will open only to students who live inside their attendance areas, say Edmonton Public Schools officials.

In a school district that has long-touted its open-boundary system, Bessie Nichols school and Michael Strembitsky school are restricting student enrolment with closed boundaries for their first year of operations. It’s an effort to prevent skyrocketing student numbers that have caused problems in a batch of schools that opened just two years ago.

“I’m not sure the boundaries are going to do anything to deal with the population explosion in those areas,” said John Nicoll, managing director of facilities for Edmonton Public Schools. “We’re just trying to cope.”

The attendance area for Bessie Nichols school, at 189 Hemingway Road in west Edmonton, encompasses The Hamptons neighbourhood as well as Glastonbury and Granville to the north.

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The Hamptons, located west of Anthony Henday Drive and south of Whitemud Drive, is the Edmonton neighbourhood with the most children age 14 and younger – 2,058 kids, according to municipal census information released this summer. Glastonbury is also one of Edmonton’s most child-populated neighbourhoods, with 1,179 children age 14 and younger.

The attendance area for Michael Strembitsky school, at 4110 Savaryn Drive in south Edmonton, includes Ellerslie, Summerside and The Orchards. Those rapidly developing suburban neighbourhoods south of the Henday and east of Calgary Trail also have lots of kids age 14 and younger: 1,069 in Ellerslie and 1,292 in Summerside.

In the past, schools have closed attendance boundaries when student numbers increase. New schools don’t normally open with the restriction already in place, said Lorne Parker, managing director of planning, transportation and property management for Edmonton Public Schools.

“It’s going to be the trend moving forward unless we have a substantive number of schools built,” Parker said.

“Really, the challenge for us is we don’t have enough schools out there servicing those students in the developing areas.”

Bessie Nichols and Michael Strembitsky schools were built for up to 850 students each and were expected to open with about 650 kids this fall, but enrolment has already surpassed that number at both schools, Parker said. Strembitsky is already at 730.

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A replacement school, Major-General Greisbach school in north Edmonton, also opens this fall with a 650-student capacity and approximately 400 students. That is up significantly from enrolment at the old school, although attendance boundaries there have not been closed, Parker said.

Public school officials have taken several steps to prevent soaring student numbers similar to what the district is seeing elsewhere, particularly at Johnny Bright school in Rutherford, Esther Starkman school in Terwillegar Towne and A. Blair McPherson school in the Tamarack neighbourhood, southeast of 17th Street and the Whitemud.

Measures include closing boundaries at the two new schools, conducting more extensive community consultations before setting attendance areas and offering only regular programming in both schools, Parker said.

“The target (capacity) for the schools in 850 (students), but we found with Starkman and Bright and MacPherson and a few others that we’re quickly exceeding the enrolment capacity for those schools,” Parker said.

“It becomes a real challenge.”

The school district has already added modular classrooms plus six portables each at Esther Starkman and Johnny Bright schools to cope with mushrooming student numbers. Both schools must temporarily accommodate students this month in spaces such as libraries and gymnasiums while portables are set up.

“They’ve had to be very creative in the use of space,” Parker said.

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Staff at Johnny Bright school have done extensive planning to make sure students still get a good education in the overpopulated building while waiting for six portables to open in October, said principal Scott Millar.

He applauded the decision to open Edmonton’s two new schools with closed boundaries and urged the province to quickly announce more new schools.

“We opened with an optimal enrolment guideline rather than closed boundaries and we should have opened with closed boundaries,” Millar said. “I think of the thousand kids we have here now, there may be 150 that were from outside our area. Once they register, they’re in. We never say, ‘You’re out.’ … There are whole neighbourhoods to the south of us that have to drive past us to get to their designated school.”

The provincial government has promised to build 50 new schools across Alberta but has not yet announced where those schools will be located. Lower-than-expected energy revenue that could put Alberta in a deficit as high as $3 billion are prompting worries the government won’t be able to afford that campaign promise. Finance Minister Doug Horner told Postmedia in an interview in July that the government intends to build the schools regardless of whether the province rakes in the extra cash it forecast in the spring budget.