Private school enrolment in the province has been on the rise for years and now local institutions are keeping on eye on School District 67’s proposal to close schools.
Art Tharrien, superintendent of schools for the Nelson Diocese — an umbrella of schools which includes Holy Cross in Penticton, said the district’s decisions on closure are being monitored.
“We’re looking at options so that when they make their decisions we can react in a way that’s going to address whatever we need to address at that time,” he said. “One of our options is to go up to Grade 9 (in Penticton) as well.”
With its current offerings of kindergarten to Grade 8, Holy Cross has held a steady student population of 190-200 over the past few years, Tharrien said, and the overall student enrolment from all seven schools has increased over the past two years after a few years of decline.
SD67 facilities being considered for closure in Penticton are Carmi, McNicoll Park, Parkway and West Bench, as well as Giant’s Head in Summerland.
Beyond the modified curriculums that are offered by private schools, Karl Boehmer, principal of Penticton Christian School, said the size of a school’s population is an important factor.
With reconfigurations of public schools resulting in increased student populations, some parents may want to “maintain that sort of intimate learning experience and I could see them potentially choosing us,” Boehmer said. “It all depends what the parents are looking for. If they desire small school environment for their children then I think we become an option because right now I understand that the schools being considered for closure are fairly small neighbourhood schools.”
Aside from SD67 elementary schools in Kaleden and Naramata, every other school in the district is being considered for reconfiguration or closure.
“If parents desire a Christian education then I hope they would be here anyway no matter what happens in the public school system,” Boehmer said. “Other than that I can’t see us picking up too many students because of it, unless parents want the smaller school environment and are OK with their children receiving their education in a Christian school environment.”
According to the Fraser Institute, over the first 12 years of the 2000s, the rate of students attending independent schools in B.C. increased by 24.4 per cent while the province’s school-age population dropped by nine per cent.
“When you consider that in (SD) 67, the public district, there has been a decrease of over 2,000 students over the last 10 years, and when you consider that we have either increased our numbers or held steady, we are somewhat not as impacted by the lesser student number that is going around,” Boehmer said. “I think more parents want more choice for their kids.”
He said the Penticton Christian School doesn’t compete against the public school system and maintains a healthy partnership.
“We have families in our school that may have a student here and another child in the public school system,” he said. “Some parents think it’s healthier to educate kids in smaller school environments … to see these small neighbourhood schools on the chopping block is difficult.”
In Summerland, where families would be affected by the closure of Giant’s Head, Sheena Fowlie, Head of Summerland Montessori School, anticipates a “soft increase” in enrolment at her school.
“I think that it would further frustrate parents who have been dealing with strikes and other job action in recent years, and could very well be the final straw to push them to explore other educational options,” she said. “We are a very small school with a family-like atmosphere and smaller class sizes, so I think that would be very attractive to parents who might be alarmed by the thought of their elementary-aged child moving to a bigger school with more older children and potentially larger class sizes.”
Superintendent Wendy Hyer wouldn’t speculate on possible outcomes, but said if reconfiguration results in district schools being able to offer more programming, it’s possible some students will be drawn back into the public system.
Boehmer said there are 80 students enrolled at Penticton Christian School. Hyer said the number of students enrolled in private schools in SD67 isn’t part of district records, though she confirmed two students in the district receive home school education.
There will be nine public meetings throughout schools in the district between Nov. 12 and Dec. 10 for district trustees to gauge public input. The final decision will be made during a public meeting at the IMC building on Jan. 20 at 6:30 p.m. Details of meetings can be found on the district website, www.sd67.bc.ca.