As many as six public elementary schools may close in Ottawa's west end in the next year

Shirley Seward, chair of the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, says closing schools is always difficult, because students and parents become emotionally attached to them. Tony Caldwell / Tony Caldwell

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 As many as six of the 22 public elementary schools in the west end of Ottawa could be closed in the next year, says a report to trustees at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board.
 
That’s an estimate from staff as the board embarks on the first of seven “accommodation reviews”  to figure out which schools should close or consolidate programs. Enrolment is declining, and the board is trying to create a better match between where schools are located and where they are needed. Trustees have recommended a five-year plan that would start in September.

The first two reviews are a study of 22 elementary and four high schools in the west end-Merivale area; and a study of the three high schools in the east end of Ottawa. Staff say it’s too early to identify changes to particular schools, but the magnitude of the closures required is clear from the estimate of six elementary schools. That represents more than a quarter of all the public elementary schools in the area.

A high school will also probably be closed after the first two reviews, says the report. The likely targets are Gloucester or Rideau, two of the three schools that make up the review of east-end high schools. Both are less than half full, while the other high school in the area, Colonel By Secondary, is over capacity.

And this is just the beginning.
 
The board plans to conduct seven reviews across the district over the next five years. There are now 11,500 empty student spaces spread across the city, many in neighbourhoods where there are no longer enough children to fill the schools. Meanwhile, some schools in central Ottawa and the suburbs are crowded. The public board is Ottawa’s largest, with about 70,000 students.
 
It will probably get nasty. People become emotionally attached to their schools, and parents fight to keep them open, no matter how low enrolment dips.

Schools that are part of the west end-Merivale review

Elementary schools: Century, Sir Winston Churchill, Meadowlands, Carleton Heights, Leslie Park, Briargreen, Knoxdale, Greenbank, Manordale, Grant Alternative, Churchill Alternative, Bells Corners, Lakeview, Bayshore, D.A. Moodie, Agincourt, J.H. Putman, D. Roy Kennedy, Pinecrest, Regina Street, Severn, Woodroffe 

Secondary schools:
Merivale, Sir Robert Borden, Bell, Woodroffe

Some schools in the review that were under capacity in the fall of 2015:
Grant Alternative: 93 students in a school with a capacity for 243
Regina Street: 146 students in a school with a capacity for 300
Severn: 166 students in a school with a capacity for 375
Bayshore: 311 students in a school with a capacity for 594
D.A. Moodie: 351 students in a school with a capacity for 502
Century: 229 students in a school with a capacity for 444
Merivale High School: 616 students in a school with a capacity for 1,362


 
In the past, the board has struggled to close schools, with debates and protests dragging on for years. This time, decisions will be made fairly quickly, at least according to the plan. For the first two accommodation reviews, staff will make recommendations in the first week of September. There will be several months of consultations, and trustees are supposed to make a decision by March 2017. Schools could be closed or changed as early as September 2017.

The third review, of 20 schools in the Alta Vista-Hunt Club area, begins in April 2017. Decisions could be implemented by September 2018. That review will probably result in the closure of another high school, says the report.

The west end was chosen for the first big review because it has a large number of schools in a relatively small geographic area, says another staff report outlining the review process
 
“Changes can be made without too much disruption,” says that report. Eight of the 22 elementary schools there are at less than 60-per-cent capacity, while four are operating at more than 100 per cent.
 
For students and parents in the west end, the speculation has begun. Schools with low enrolment are the most obvious targets. But they won’t automatically be closed, because some programs could be consolidated into one building.
 
The popularity of French immersion programs in Ottawa is a major factor. Enrolment in English programs is declining, while some French-immersion schools are crowded.
 
At Leslie Park Public School, for instance, which offers English programs, there are only 130 students in a school with room for 288. Nearby Knoxdale Public School, a centre for French immersion, is crowded, with portables jamming the yard.
 
Karen Adelberg, a parent who has two sons at Leslie Park and another starting kindergarten in the fall, says it’s a lovely, small school, and she hopes it won’t close. Parents there are hoping some French immersion programs will be added to the school instead.
 
Staff tend to support consolidating programs, creating centres for English. That idea can be controversial among parents who want to save neighbourhood schools that offer a variety of programs, however.
 
The east-end review is unusual because it includes only three high schools. However, the situation is pressing, say staff. At Rideau High School, the number of students was “in the low 400s” this March, and only 61 students were enrolled in Grade 9. The school has a capacity of 966.
Enrolment is also projected to continue shrinking at Gloucester High School, where only 665 students were enrolled last fall in a building with a capacity for 1,608, according to board statistics.
 
Board chair Shirley Seward said she only realized after being elected this term that the board would tackle the difficult issue of school closures.
 
“My initial reaction was shock and horror,” she says, tongue only partly in cheek. “It’s a very emotional issue. Schools are real community places.
 
“We shouldn’t fool ourselves, it won’t be easy.”
 
However, she said she’s convinced that the changes will benefit students. Small high schools, for instance, simply can’t offer the range of programs and courses that students deserve, she said. “At the end of the day, it will be a better education for our children.”
 
The board is already planning to cut classroom and office staff as it struggles with a budget deficit. In the past, the province provided “top-up” grants for schools with low enrolment. But Ontario is now eliminating that extra funding, providing another incentive for school boards to close under-used schools.
 

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