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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 6, April 2005

The hinterland is hurting

by Kathleen Cherry

In the past four years, Coast Mountain School District has closed five elementary schools, increased class size, decreased staffing, both teaching and support staff, and adopted a four-day school week.

On March 16, the board voted to keep schools closed one day a week. "We’re not dealing with what’s best, but rather looking at what is the least harmful of several options," explains Peter King, a school trustee for the amalgamated district, including the communities of Terrace, Kitimat, the Hazeltons, and Stewart.

The controversial four-day week was first implemented during the 2003–04 school year, and trustees openly admit that the change was considered for budgetary, as opposed to educational, reasons.

"I would have a four-day school week rather than vote to close another school," says Barry Pankhurst, a Kitimat trustee. Two of the community’s five elementary schools were closed in June 2002 and closure of a third was discussed in spring 2004.

According to trustees, a chronic lack of government funding and declining enrolment have forced rural boards to take drastic measures. Ironically, a vicious circle has been created as parents lose faith in public education, choosing to enrol their children in private schools, home school, or leave northern communities, further decreasing school enrolment and adding to the district’s financial difficulties. Enrolment at Coast Mountain School District has decreased by 1,445 students since January 2000, with further drops anticipated.

The four-day week is one of the more controversial measures implemented by the school board, and both teachers and parents have been outspoken about its impact.

"Our children are the guinea pigs. We will not know the results or the damage this has caused for many years to come. I truly feel it will harm them (children) at the university level," says parent Catherine Mercer, who has been tireless in advocating increased ministry funding.

Educators second those concerns. Kindergarten teacher Pat Mouland explains that it is hard to cover even the basics and impossible to spend much time on esoteric subjects like the fine arts. She also notes increased difficulty in establishing routines when such young students are away from the classroom for three days every week.

Similar worries are noted by elementary special education teacher JoAnn Hildebrandt. "The longer day is particularly difficult for children with learning challenges," Hildebrandt explains. "Work is being presented at a faster rate, and they have less time to absorb and understand."

Like Mouland, Hildebrandt finds that many children forget newly taught material over the three-day break.

Nor is it any better in the higher grades, as secondary school teachers also struggle with the shortened week. Days at Mount Elizabeth Secondary School (MESS) run from 8:30 a.m. to 3:38 p.m., with only 45 minutes scheduled for lunch.

MESS teacher Tina Watchorn says her personal teaching style has changed into a "read, and answer the question format," which allows for little creativity for teacher or student.

"Afternoon classes are very trying for exhausted students and teachers, resulting in a negative ambiance and personal perceptions, neither of which supports learning," says Watchorn.

This has been compounded by increased class size, particularly evident at the high school level. During the last year, trustee Peter King says that the district class-size average increased from 26.2 to 27.

The long days make it difficult to find time for parent phone calls or meetings, negatively affecting on parent/teacher communication. Watchorn reports increased stress in both herself and her colleagues. "You know what needs to be done, but you have no time or energy to do it."

MESS is also run on a semester system, which means that all teachers have one semester without a prep.

"The stress is evidenced through depression, sleeplessness, defensive behaviour, and withdrawal from friends in attempts to conserve energy," Watchorn says. She adds that she may choose to purchase a prep next year and, although glad for the option, she is also keenly aware that that choice, brought about by the four-day week, will cause her to lose monetarily in salary and pension.

Nor does the three-day weekend compensate for the stresses of the week.

"In a five-day week, I had enough energy left over that I could enjoy my weekends, not just try to recuperate for the upcoming week," says social studies teacher Reid Nelson.

Parents and students also find it hard to maintain a balanced life during the four-day school week. "If my kids aren’t at school, they’re at home doing homework four days a week. I appreciate that their teachers are trying to fit the curriculum in as best they can, but the four-day school week does not allow for a balanced life," says, mother of two, Pat Mouland.

And concerns for education in the Coast Mountain School District are not limited to the four-day week or larger class sizes. Trustees and teachers also recognize that it is increasingly difficult to recruit teachers with sufficient expertise. Morale is also at a low ebb in Coast Mountain School District.

Teaching resources are also sadly inadequate, and janitorial, secretarial, and all CUPE jobs have been cut to the bone.

Moreover, according to trustee King, the Coast Mountain School Board has not received any capital funding for repairs to the district’s aging facilities. MESS alone requires a $6 million physical upgrade, but no money as been allocated to the project.

Meanwhile, King adds that given this massive underfunding, he sometimes feels he’s "rearranging deck chairs on the Titantic" as opposed to properly meeting the education needs of local students.

Kathleen Cherry teaches at Kildala Elementary School, Kitimat.

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