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Rural Alberta community exploring scholarship initiative to keep families in town

Click to play video: 'Alberta community tries to incentivize schooling' Alberta community tries to incentivize schooling
Young minds grow up to make a big impact, and that’s exactly why an Alberta community is banking on them to bring its economy back to life. Morgan Black has more from the Village of Forestburg – Oct 17, 2021

An Alberta village is offering a financial incentive for families to stay in — or come to — town.

On Friday, Forestburg council announced that every year spent at Forestburg School will earn a student $1,000 toward their post-secondary education.

For example, a student in Grade 11 this year will graduate with $2,000. A student in Kindergarten will eventually get $12,000 upon graduation.

Dwight Dibben, chief administrative officer for the Village, said he hopes it’s an encouragement for students to pursue a higher education.

“It will be an enticement for existing students and families to stay here, and also an economic driver that may bring other families, entrepreneurs and businesses here.

“With every challenge comes opportunities and we want to see those opportunities manifest themselves here… not down the road — not out of province and not out of country,” Dibben said.

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The announcement of the Kirschman Bursary Program is also an opportunity for the village itself. Mayor Blaise Young said it was announced in 2017 that the nearby Paintearth mine and Battle River Generating Station would be phased out. Since then, the workforce has dwindled — and taken their kids with them.

Read more: Alberta set to retire coal power by 2023, ahead of 2030 provincial deadline

“We said, ‘We are going to become an economic development council,'” said Young.

“We have attracted one industry (related to bio-incineration) to help stabilize the community and increase our tax base. But, one of the big issues is our declining school numbers.”

Principal Gordon Thompson said class sizes have dwindled. In the last five years, a quarter of the students have left.

Thompson said more students are graduating this year than there are Kindergarten students coming in.

“The reality is, in most rural areas, we have a declining population. Cities are getting bigger and rural spots are getting smaller,” Thompson said. “We’re hoping to change that. Working with the Village (on bursaries like this) is important.”

Young said though the community is still growing population-wise and business-wise, the lack of school-aged children is “a bit scary.”

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“If you do not have a K-12 school, it is very difficult to attract investment and industry,” he said. “We have conversations with several businesses and industries and they ask ‘What is the school?’ Without the high school, it would be very difficult.”

Shrinking rural school numbers is a problem throughout Alberta. Young said other jurisdictions are keeping an eye on the success and outcome of the bursary, and may explore a similar path if it works.

“The possibility of losing [the school] is not acceptable. We will do everything to save this school,” Young said. “If we can put more children in this school, the investment will be worth it. We will grow considerably in the next few years.”

Read more: Mining companies knew about coal policy removal long before Albertans

The bursary is a financial gift to the Village from the estate of a local farming family who wished to support upcoming generations.

“The Kirschman’s were community builders all their lives. They were involved in so many facets of Forestburg. One of the last gifts of community building was this [bursary],” Dibben said.
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An advisory board will be established in the coming months to formalize program details and to secure additional funding sources and donations for the bursary.

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