Rural Alberta is facing a demographic trend which sees small community schools slowly dwindle as parents commute for better programming for children.
For two days of the week, no secretary will staff the office at Rockyford School, causing concerns in some rural parents trying to provide education equal to that of urban children.
Golden Hills School Division Superintendant Dianne McBeth says the demographic trend of declining elementary aged children is the cause of staffing adjustments seeing secretary time being cut and triple grading at the K-12 school.
“The challenge we face is declining enrolment over a long period of time, we can no longer sustain the same staffing,” McBeth said.
Karen Smith is now principal of Rockyford, Hussar, and Standard, and secretarial time at Rockyford has been cut to only three days a week, leaving the school with no secretary for two days of the school week.
Rockyford resident and parent of three, Shelly Neil, is concerned over-burdened teachers will be unable to provide a safe environment for her children when the front office goes untended.
“They are supposed to provide a safe and caring environment and I’m not sure how this school will be safe anymore,” Neil said.
Without a secretary there for two days, who says people won’t be wandering the halls, Neil worries.
“The teachers are too busy, they won’t know.”
“Schools can work out those routines, not every school in the division has a full-time secretary,” says McBeth.
“It’s a change, and change is hard, but we need to staff schools on the basis of numbers of children.”
Small schools simply cannot achieve the same efficiencies as a larger school, and with Rockyford’s school population hovering above 50, a full-time secretary cannot be expected, says McBeth.
The problem of decreasing enrolment in Alberta’s schools is a change all schools are facing says the superintendant, and they must manage it with the restricted resources available to them.
If you have classes in a school with 24 children, and say a class loses four children over the summer, it would mean a loss of about $80,000 in funding for the division, but no fewer costs, says McBeth
The classes at Rockyford have been triple graded, with Kindergarten and Grades 1 and 2, Grades 3, 4, 5, and Grades 6, 7, 8 being put into three classrooms with three teachers.
It’s a problem that exacerbates itself – parents move their children to larger schools for better programs, leaving rural families not prepared to commute with understaffed schools with poorer programming.
“That places hardships on those families who have a strong desire to retain K-12 programming in their town,” said McBeth.
The Golden Hills School Board has decided consolidation into one centrally located school is the answer, the challenge is where.
“Everyone wants it in their own town. Last year we made the request to Wheatland County to designate land to community service class, and it was turned down.”
The board is now back to square one– trying to find a space for a consolidated school for East Wheatland.