ARENDT: Demographic changes affect schools

For years, staff and administrators at the school district have watched as enrolment has been on a gradual decline.

The potential closure of Giant’s Head School, along with other possible school closures within the Okanagan-Skaha School District should not come as a surprise to anyone.

For years, staff and administrators at the school district have watched as enrolment has been on a gradual decline.

It was not too many years ago that the schools in Summerland were full and at times, portables were needed to house additional classes. Today, there are not nearly as many students.

At first glance, the declining enrolment trend seems puzzling. Summerland has seen slight increases in its population over the years. If the increases were evenly distributed throughout all age demographics, school enrolment numbers should increase slightly, or at the very least, remain stable.

A closer look at census data tells a different story.

The population of Summerland — and the population of Canada — is aging.

Earlier this year, for the first time in Canadian history, there were more people 65 and older than there were 15 and younger.

Against such a backdrop, if a community’s population remains relatively stable, the number of retirees will increase while the number of children will decrease.

This is exactly what has happened in Summerland.

In 1996, there were 1,919 Summerland residents 14 years of age and younger. The latest Statistics Canada census data, from 2011, showed just 1,440 children 14 and younger.

During this same time, the total population in Summerland grew from 10,584 to 11,280, an increase of 696 people.

Summerland has long identified itself as a small community and many who live here speak of “small-town charm” as one of the qualities they value most highly.

The importance of this small-town atmosphere is mentioned every time a growth plan is presented and every time a large-scale development proposal is brought forward.

Even if other issues are raised during discussions about growth, many will speak out about the importance of preserving Summerland’s character as a small community.

Those who moved here from elsewhere often say they do not want to live in Vancouver, Calgary or another large centre.

At the same time, the possibility of a school closure is deeply disturbing.

A school is part of a small town’s identity, and the closure of a school alters that identity.

The school board has not yet made a decision on whether Giant’s Head School will be closed. That won’t happen until January, and it is possible that Summerland will retain all its schools.

However, if Summerland does not experience school closures, it would likely be just a temporary reprieve.

As long as the board has to cope with limited funding from the province and a declining student population in Summerland, school closures will remain a serious possibility.

This leaves our community with a difficult choice.

If we want to choose no growth or limited growth in order to preserve our small-town atmosphere, school enrolment numbers will continue to dwindle.

If we want to retain the present education model of elementary schools, a middle school and a high school, then we need to attract families with school-aged children. Should this happen, Summerland would see a noticeable change in its demographic makeup.

Those are the two options. Either one would have significant implications and trade-offs for the entire community.

What choice would you like to see for Summerland?

John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review