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Community-Based Solutions Needed for Crowded Alberta Schools

This article originally ran in the Edmonton Journal on November 2, 2023.

Visit a school in Calgary or Edmonton these days and there are a few common sights: classes are held in hallways and staff rooms, students share desks, and classrooms are overflowing. Alberta’s schools are extremely crowdedand there’s no signs of growth slowing.

School boards in the two cities welcomed at least 15,000 new students this fall, primarily because of record migration to Alberta. Schools are bursting at the seams – and the solution, say some, is greater provincial funding to build more schools. But even with significant investments in school renovations and new school builds in the last budget, government procedures for major projects are simply too slow to provide any kind of real-time response.

What if we look at this issue with fresh eyes? What if what we actually need are not top-down but community-based solutions? Let us explain.

It shouldn’t take years and years to start or expand a school. Take just one recent example (of many!). The modernization project at John G. Diefenbaker high school in Calgary was first identified by the school board as needing upgrades over thirteen years ago! In other words, around the time Susie is ready for Kindergarten, we identify that there won’t be a seat for her in high school. Good start. But unfortunately, the seat isn’t ready for her until she’s graduated and off to college. Should we accept this?

In fairness, it is the nature of bureaucracies to move slowly. And this isn’t always a bad thing. Due process has its place. But when Alberta’s kids are slipping through the cracks and not receiving an adequate education, a timely response is critical.

And this isn’t only a problem in one system. Even non-district schools, like independent and charter schools, have long waitlists and many are waiting on government approvals to launch or expand. (This may, at least in part, explain why Alberta’s homeschool population has nearly doubled in recent years.)

So, if a slow-moving bureaucracy is the root cause of crowded classrooms, what’s the solution? Trying to change nature is a fool’s errand. The path forward is actually quite straightforward: Allow those on the ground to innovate in real-time.

What would this look like? First and foremost, it should be easier to start new schools. Two significant policy changes here would be to guarantee first-year funding to new independent schools, and to speed up the process for new school approvals and accreditation. Giving school start-ups timely answers and clarity would be a positive step forward to create more spaces for students in both the short- and long-term.

Society is brimming with creativity and enthusiasm for a variety of new schools. Let’s double down on the strength of Alberta’s pluriform educational structure—recognizing that there are dozens of effective ways to school. This is what made Alberta the best education system in North America. In seemingly every facet of life, Albertans recognize that ordinary citizens and self-organizing communities—whether charities or businesses—are more efficient than a distant, centralized command. Let’s not forget that this is also true in education. Neighbourhoods, parents, teachers, business leaders, philanthropists, faith communities, ethnic communities, and pedagogical experts (just to name a few) already work together to solve the everchanging needs of students and society.

In addition to independent and charter schools, take the recent success of micro-schools, learning pods, and homeschool cooperatives. Leaders in this space are imaginatively problem-solving every day. There are micro-schools holding classes in dance studios and nature-based programs working out of local parks. Or, consider the former public school teacher who opened a micro-school in his home, designed to serve both students struggling with online classes and families concerned about getting sick from larger classrooms. Initiatives like these relieve pressure on the system and meet otherwise unmet student needs.  We should embrace this energy.

The Premier’s recent mandate letter to the Minister of Education directed that all of Alberta’s schooling options should be appropriately funded. This is a solid start. Families shouldn’t be penalized for choosing a different type of learning. All education is for the common good and in the public’s interest, so all K-12 education should have the option of funding: both operating and capital costs should be equally covered for all types of schools. The more open and “user-friendly” the environment, the more creative solutions will emerge to solve diverse challenges.

The community is ready; government simply must catch up. Take the pressure off overcrowded classrooms, by unleashing the possibility which will accompany a more open system.

  • Catharine Kavanagh is Alberta liaison officer and David Hunt is education program director at public policy think tank Cardus.

November 2, 2023

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Let's unleash the creativity of Alberta's communities to solve the overcrowding problem in Alberta schools.