Closing schools controversial topic of discussion

By Carolyn Goard, Niagara News - Thorold

Accommodation Review Committee members have begun the process in brainstorming some solutions for five schools currently under the microscope. In an attempt to combat the issue of low student enrollments and aging school facilities, the ARC - a team responsible for developing solutions for five schools currently undergoing an Accommodation Review: Sir Winston Churchill, St. Catharines Collegiate, Kernahan Park, West Park and Thorold Secondary.

To help get the ball rolling, Distinct School Board of Niagara senior staff developed and presented a preliminary list of options of four options-named A through D-to ARC members Thursday. Each option slated at least two or more schools closing.

But the options were neither final decisions nor were they permanent recommendations. Rather, the purpose of the preliminary options was to initiate discussion and generate feedback among ARC members and DSBN staff as the Accommodation Review continues to move forward, said superintendent of planning and transportation Marilyn Hyatt.

Hyatt, who facilitated the four-hour public meeting Thursday at Kernahan Park, said it's meant to help set the pace for brainstorming and developing final recommendations and solutions that will be presented to the board of trustees for consideration sometime in the spring when they prepare to make a final decision.

The evening commenced as superintendent of human resources, Jim Morgan, tabled four scenarios to ARC members on behalf of a team comprised of senior DSBN staff.

"Tonight's presentation is just part of the process," he said, stressing the presentation was only meant to allow staff and ARC members to contemplate, evaluate and modify the proposed, hypothetical options to develop solutions with the best interest of students, programs and communities in mind.

Morgan said Option A would see Kernahan Park, West Park and Thorold Secondary close, with Kernahan and West Park students consolidated to St. Catharines Collegiate. Thorold students would attend Sir Winston Churchill, where the French Immersion program would remain.

In Option B, Kernahan Park and West Park would close. Kernahan students would attend Collegiate and West Park students would be reallocated to Sir Winston. This option would also include some boundary changes, which would see Burleigh Hill and Ferndale students reallocated to Thorold Secondary with the French Immersion program split.

He said Option B is projected to see some net savings in transportation, and Thorold Secondary would have its office area and front entrance enhanced.

Option C would see Kernahan Park and Thorold Secondary close. Kernahan students would attend Collegiate and Thorold students would be sent to Sir Winston, with French Immersion reallocated to West Park. This option would see no savings in regards to transportation.

In the final scenario, Option D, Kernahan Park and West Park would close. Kernahan Park students would attend St. Catharines Collegiate and West Park students would be consolidated to Sir Winston. French Immersion would be shifted to Thorold, however transportation costs would increase.

Thorold Secondary would also see its office and front foyer renovated.

Morgan said each of the options would boost enrollments anywhere from about 700 to approximately 1,000 students at the remaining opened schools, with surplus spaces reduced.

As ARC parent representative Eric Nixon from Thorold Secondary predicted, neither Sir Winston Churchill nor Collegiate are slated to close in any of the four options.

Following the presentation, ARC members and some senior staff members were split into three groups for a lengthy discussion period generating the advantages and disadvantages of each scenario.

In attempt to develop some commonalities and guiding principals to help set the course for future work, ARC members agreed that their recommendation would prioritize boosting enrollments while enhancing programming.

"The committee sees programming as the most important issue and is also cognizant of community needs," Hyatt said following Thurday's session.

Additionally, ARC members expressed if Thorold Secondary were to be closed, the city would lose its only high school, which would be a major loss to the community.

Others liked idea of splitting French Immersion programming.

But the main concern expressed by ARC members was that should some schools be closed and students then be forced to reallocate, the disruption posed on students and families would be great.

Kim Shook, member of Thorold Secondary's parent advisory council, was in attendance at Thursday's meeting and said she fears there are many negative repercussions that would be posed on her daughter along with other Thorold students, should the school be closed.

"I think it's wrong to close any school," she said. "Moving these kids is like having them go into Grade 9 all over again."

Sergio Paone, ARC representative on behalf of Thorold council, said it would be a big disruption to close any school and suggested developing solutions and looking for an option that meets the overall mandate with as little inconvenience and student shifting as possible.

Based on the preliminary suggestions, the ARC began devising four additional options. Though the options are not finalized, each involves consolidating Kernahan Park to St. Catharines Collegiate.

Some other options also include consolidating Thorold Secondary to Sir Winston,

West Park to Sir Winton and some zones of West Park to Collegiate and Winston Sir Winston.

Three of the four options also include reallocating and splitting the French Immersion program to West Park, Laura Secord and Thorold Secondary, and Collegiate. The committee is also investigating some boundary changes.

The next step in the Accommodation Review involves the ARC developing and refining options of its own. All suggestions generated by the committee and the senior staff team will be brought to a future public meeting for input and feedback.

Hyatt said after public consultation, the options will go back to the ARC to be narrowed down to a final recommendation, which at that point will be submitted to trustees.

The next public Accommodation Review meeting will be held at 6 p.m. at Kernahan Park Secondary School on Thursday, Dec. 8.