Williams Lake school reconfiguration fiercely opposed by parents

School trustees find themselves facing strong opposition to their proposal to create a grades 7 to 12 school in Williams Lake.

Close to 300 people crammed into the Williams Lake Secondary School gym Tuesday evening for the first public consultation meeting on the district’s Initial Options Report.

For the north end the report proposes closing Glendale, Kwaleen, and Wildwood elementary schools and making Columneetza and Williams Lake secondary schools into one grades 7 to 12 school on two campuses.

While Superintendent of Schools Mark Thiessen gave a powerPoint presentation on reasons for the decision and explained that Tuesday’s meeting was for questions only on information in the report, numerous people who came to the microphone to ask questions also delivered impassioned speeches, several of which drew loud applause from the audience.

No one spoke in favour of the grades 7 to 12 option.

Several speakers also spoke in favour of keeping Glendale, Wildwood, and Kwaleen elementary schools open.

Despite explanations by Williams Lake Trustee Doug Neufeld and other trustees that the Grade 7 to 12 option was carefully considered and was the best option for Williams Lake to maintain and enhance programming in the future, the audience didn’t seem convinced.

Karen Sokolan, who has two children attending Columneetza and two children attending Mountview elementary, including a daughter in Grade 6, was among several parents giving emotional speeches.

Sokolan said Grade 7s aren’t ready for the negative peer pressures they will be exposed to at high school to drink alcohol, do drugs, or engage in sex, branding and bullying.

“There is a public perception that our high schools are not safe, so why would you bring your Grade 7s into an unsafe school environment?” Sokolan explained later.

Shaelyn Wintjes, a Grade 11 student at Columneetza, gathered 259 signatures in two days on a petition opposing the grades 7 to 12 secondary school idea.

She says her sister in Grade 6 at 150 Mile elementary also gathered 53 signatures during one lunch break opposing the proposal.

Wintjes says it is ridiculous to bring Grade 7s into the high schools because they are too young to lose their innocence by being exposed to the peer pressure to do drugs, drink alcohol, engage in sex and the bullying experienced in high school.

She is also concerned that creating one high school on two campuses would pose problems for students with learning disabilities, negatively impact sports programs, increase bullying that already exists between the two schools, and require lockers for students at both schools.

Wintjes was also concerned that busing students between schools would take away time that students might need to get some extra tutoring they might need from their teachers.

Crystal Verhaeghe spoke in favour of keeping the kindergarten to Grade 3 school open at Wildwood. She said her family lives in Williams Lake and chooses to drive their children to the Wildwood school for the programs there which include the Shuswap language. She asked what provisions there would be at Cataline to have early Shuswap language.

There were also concerns expressed about how the classes and scheduling would operate at a two-campus high school, and people speaking in favour of keeping Kwaleen and Glendale elementary schools open.

Some people also asked why Marie Sharpe is being kept open with low enrollment. Trustees explained the need to keep a school in the downtown core within walk limits.

Ivor Myers expressed concern that creating a Grade 7 to 12 secondary school in Williams Lake would impact enrollment at schools in the Chilcotin because parents might move their students to Williams Lake for Grade 7 thereby reducing enrollment in those rural schools and making it more difficult to keep the schools going.

He also questioned why some students who graduate don’t do well on the tests they have to take to get a job.

If Canada is supposed to have one of the best education systems in the world he asked why government isn’t putting more money into education to address these types of problems.

Several speakers asked why a middle school option was not presented.

Neufeld explained how the board developed its guiding principle for reducing the number of transitions a student has to experience in the school system.

He said research shows that the more students have to change schools,  the greater the chance is that they will drop out of school early.

Given student numbers in the various grades in the Williams Lake area,  condition of aging schools, and the ability to maintain and enhance course offerings in future, Neufeld said the grades 7 to 12 option is the best configuration for Williams Lake.

One speaker suggested making a grades 6,7,8 middle school and a grades 9,10,11,12 secondary school. Others wanted to know enrollment numbers at each school so they might make their own recommendations on reconfiguration.

There were also concerns that proposals for achieving fewer school transitions in the district to create more efficiencies in the system look quite different in 100 Mile House than they do in Williams Lake.

While the plan is to create a grades 7 to 12 school on two campuses in Williams Lake the plan for 100 Mile House is to move Grade 8 students out of the secondary school and put them back in elementary schools. 100 Mile House Junior Secondary School would be closed and sold and Peter Skene Ogden would become a Grade 9 to 12 secondary school.

Both proposals satisfy the creation of only one transition between elementary school and secondary school and relief for the problem of underutilization of some schools.

However, in an earlier interview, Cariboo Chilcotin Teachers Association president Joan Erb said she is already hearing from 100 Mile House teachers who oppose the idea of putting Grade 8s back in the elementary schools.

She says she personally taught Grade 7 French Immersion for 13 years and it was clear to her that students in Grade 7 are ready and chomping at the bit to move up to secondary school after the first semester.

So, Erb says it doesn’t seem to make sense to put Grade 8s back into elementary schools.