An influx of new young families combined with an increasing desire among existing families to stay in town, has crammed every corner of Tofino’s Wickaninnish Community School.
“We have no room in our school. Absolutely no room. We converted our computer lab into a classroom in the summer to have a tenth classroom,” school principal Drew Ryan told Tofino’s municipal council last week.
“We’ve talked about portables and what that might look like. We’ve talked about getting an engineer out here and seeing what we could do to our building and things like that, but that’s something that could happen really quickly for us and we have to start planning now.”
Coun. Greg Blanchette had invited Ryan and other school officials and parents to speak at council’s Jan. 30 Committee of the Whole because the provincial government is putting together a revamped rural education strategy and had asked local governments for input.
“The main goal is to find long-term solutions for the unique challenges facing rural school districts, while considering the important social, cultural, and economic roles that schools play for small communities,” according to a letter the province sent Tofino’s district office.
Ryan told council the school’s student population has increased by about 56 per cent since 2009 and the school is struggling to handle that increase, not just in terms of space but in resources as well.
“More and more families are moving into our community,” he said.
“We have amazing staff members and, as many of you know, amazing teachers who know how to stretch a dollar for sure. Whether it’s buying self regulation tools, wiggle seats and things like that, at thrift stores, taping books back together, collecting different art supplies out of their own recycling bins; we make it happen and, I think, we do a heck of a job.”
Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation member Iris Frank said a lack of accessible transportation is forcing First Nations students from Esowista, Ty-Histanis and Opitsaht to miss out on after-school activities like social events, sports and supplemental educational programs.
“There is a serious lack of class space and I’m letting you know right know, there’s no lack of children coming up from Tla-o-qui-aht over the next 5-10 years because our community has pretty much doubled in size,” she said.
“Education on the West Coast comes with a cost. Living out here comes with a cost and I’m starting to get that more and more…It’s frustrating for me as a mom, and I know schools do a lot of work, but I really do see that there’s a lack of literacy and numeracy.”
She added a lack of resources is impeding students’ ability to learn and suggested they are advancing grades by age, rather than merit.
“If we keep doing that, we’re going to consistently graduate many young children who don’t have a clue how to read, much less comprehend what they’re supposed to be reading,” she said adding graduation has been an issue for First Nation students.
“We’re not graduating. There’s something missing between Grade 7 and Grade 12 and that bothers us and it bothers every other First Nation on the West Coast. We’re not seeing graduation rates and it’s not because of lack of trying, it’s because of lack of resources. The school district needs to take a serious look at how funding is allocated out here.”
Mayor Josie Osborne thanked the meeting’s large attendance for their feedback and commended them for showing up on late notice.
“I think it’s terrific,” she said. “Being able to hear directly from local residents on something that obviously matters to a lot of us I hope we can do this more often.”
Coun. Al Anderson agreed.
“We’ve definitely heard some things that we wouldn’t have without that and we will definitely include that in the concerns we put forward to the province,” he said.
Coun. Ray Thorogood stressed transportation issues must be highlighted in council’s feedback to the province.
“A lot of it has to do with after-school activities and programs that are being offered at the school and there’s no transportation to get those children either to those programs or from those programs back their residences,” he said.
Coun. Blanchette agreed to write a letter on council’s behalf and circulate it around council before sending it off to the province.
He told the Westerly after the meeting that council had little time between receiving the province’s letter and the feedback’s deadline and he was happy to see his call for local input answered on such short notice.
“It stunned me that we had not heard of this. It sounds like a fairly major review and we had not of of it until like a week or 10 days before the deadline,” he said. “I know from having attended various meetings that we have a lot of concerns out here and a lot of very valid ones so I thought we really want to get our voice heard.”
He said his key takeaways from the meeting were the school’s lack of space and transportation.
“The whole transportation issue, I knew was a problem, but I hadn’t heard it in that much detail before and how it really cuts into students being able to enjoy after-school activities,” he said.
“Iris was very specific in that they want to do after-school sports and tutorials, homework clubs and that sort of thing and it just makes it impossible if they live in Ty-Histanis or Esowista, if there’s no late bus. I guess parents could be driving back and forth four or five times a day to pick kids up, but there must be a better solution than that.”
He said he would follow up with the province in terms of timelines and deliverables.
“The review is talking about rural education specifically, so they realize there are funding issues, space issues and student population issues and they have been, kind of dropping the ball on this,” he said.
“I guess I’m kind of cautiously hopeful. As to whether something’s going to happen, with an election looming I doubt if we’ll get any big shifts, but if this information goes into the Ministry of Education, I think it will inform what happens after the election.”