A West Bench Elementary student made a passionate plea to School District 67 trustees on Tuesday.
“West Bench is the best school ever. Please don’t close it,” said Jack MacIntosh, who’s attending his final year at the school, at a community meeting where the trustees are listening to public opinion on school closures in the face of declining enrolment.
Parents, students and neighbours packed into the school gym to make their case for keeping the school operational, with arguments largely focused around the loss of a tightly-knit school community, the implications that would result in having to commute to the next closest school, and the community’s history.
“Please recognize that there is a huge difference between bussing 12 year olds across town compared to 5 year olds,” said parent and West Bench PAC secretary Rick Hatch, adding that longer commutes required for young children contradicts the SD67’s decision-making criteria as to what “best meet the developmental needs of each age group.”
Hatch said he is concerned closing West Bench would push more students away from SD67.
“This may take the form of private school enrolment or Penticton Indian Band members choosing to send their children to Outma Sqilx’W Cultural School rather than enduring the long bus ride.”
The school’s close ties with the Penticton Indian Band is something that’s valued by Ross O’Neil, who has one child attending West Bench and another who has graduated.
“A school that joins the aboriginal community with the general community gives kids a good perspective about inclusion and tolerance,” O’Neil said. “I think the solution to a lot of our problems in Canada, solving the aboriginal being a major one, comes from children and the next generation that is growing up in an increasingly tolerant place. Unfortunately the Okanagan is one of the least multi-ethnic places in Canada. Being that way we need to encourage as much multiculturalism as we can.”
Chris Allen, who was one of two architects who designed the Veterans’ Tribute in Selby Park, reminded the board of the history of West Bench, which was settled by veterans of the Second World War and their families.
“The school was built as part of that original social contract, and it should not just be taken away lightly. To take away something that was part of that original contract when the neighbourhood was developed is violating the agreement with veterans from World War Two,” he said, followed by a loud applaud from the crowd.
Trustees also heard from Eli Nelson who moved to Penticton two years ago with his family from Texas, though he was already past the elementary level when he arrived. He explained he has faced education challenges in the past compared to the model at West Bench where kids thrive.
“I heard about what was going on with West Bench with my siblings; small classes where teachers can focus on every single student. They teach people in a way that isn’t about making a standard model, but how every kid in each class can learn to the best of their ability … This type of school really matters.”
The district is also gauging feedback online. Superintendent Wendy Hyer said online responses are still accumulating until Jan. 10, and all input will be considered fully before decision day on Jan. 20.
Though the process is nearing the halfway point, Hyer said there’s no inclination so far as to which direction the board will end up taking.
The next public consultation meeting takes place at Parkway Elementary at 7 p.m. on Dec. 7.
Those who can’t attend or would prefer to consult the district privately can email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org, and by clicking the survey monkey link on the homepage of sd67.bc.ca.