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Concern over Winfield School | Spare News

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The parent advisory council at Winfield Elementary are worried about the future of their school.

Carolyn Schwindt, the president of the school’s PAC, says some motions that the Wetaskiwin Regional Public School Division recently put forward in their board meeting are concerning.

Schwindt says this year the division has a new superintendent, Mike Wake, and Schwindt says that he’s been great to work with so far. However, she doesn’t agree with some of the ideas brought forward for calculating when a school should be closed.

“There’s always been discussion in Wetaskiwin Public Schools on the potential need for closure,” says Schwindt. “We’ve got low enrolment across the board in all schools.”

Schwindt says there are many factors at play when it comes to the enrolment at Winfield. Currently, the school has 63 students and also houses the community’s public library. Schwindt says there are multiple programs that use the school, such as the playschool and gymnastics club.

The motions that were put forward suggested that the school be closed if enrolment was below 60 students. Schwindt says if the number for closure is that close to the number of currently enrolled students, no one can really be certain if the school will stay open from year to year.

She worries this could affect whether teachers look for positions at the school. Or perhaps parents would move their children prematurely because the school might close.

She says since the pandemic, there has been an increase in the number of home-schooled students in the area, which has lowered student enrolment. Allowing families to pick a school of choice for their children also affects the numbers in the schools.

Schwindt says Wake has been focusing on the reason for low numbers and has been actively looking for solutions to the problem.

The division’s most recent proposal was to ask the provincial government for funds to build a K-12 school for the Buck Lake family of schools in the Alder Flats area. Another area that was considered was the Pigeon Lake family of schools becoming consolidated.

But Schwindt says those two school families have schools spread out over a large area. Already, some students are looking at bus rides that are an hour or more in some of those areas. Should the schools be consolidated, many of those bus rides could increase significantly.

As it is, students who choose to go to high school in WRPS rather than the Breton High School with the school of choice option, have to travel to Buck Mountain High School. The distance from Winfield to the Buck Mountain school is 27 kms, and takes about seventeen minutes of straight drive time.

Another thing Schwindt worries about is what would happen to the community should the school be closed.

As of 2011, Winfield had 244 residents. One of the major employers in the area is the school and its closure could have a ripple effect throughout the community.

Schwindt says she has spoken to Wetaskiwin County Council about the issue, but there is little they can do.

Kathy Rooyakkers, the councillor for Division 6 in Wetaskiwin County, says the idea of the school potentially being shut down next year worries her.

“It will affect them big time,” says Rooyakkers.

Rooyakkers says that unfortunately the County cannot stop anything WRPS plans to do. She says they have the opportunity to meet with the division a few times a year, where they discuss issues that concern both the County and the division, but all they can do is give their opinions about the situation.

“At the table, we don’t get a decision,” says Rooyakkers.

She says it’s frustrating, but there isn’t much they can do. At this point, she says the County has not discussed what they would do should the school be closed. She says there may be some other options that could be considered, such as creating a charter school, but council can’t make any changes.

Rooyakkers says that council is also worried about all of the other communities that could be affected by school closures.

“I would really like to see Winfield start growing,” says Rooyakkers, but decisions like school closures could make that difficult.

Both Schwindt and Rooyakkers said discussions about potential closures only began a few months ago. Schwindt says the meetings have people in attendance and the division has been asking for feedback, but for her it feels like lip service.

“It feels like they’ve already made their decision and they’re just having these meetings to say that they did after the fact,” says Schwindt.

However, she says there hasn’t been a lot of parent engagement either. The school division has sent out surveys to more than 300 parents in the potentially affected areas, but has only received fewer than 30 responses. Schwindt says many people are relying on only a few people to fight for the school instead of putting in the effort of writing a letter or filling out the survey.

“That’s not really how this works,” she says.

Schwindt says the division has been given notice of funding to consolidate some schools in Wetaskiwin, which she says makes sense. Those students won’t have to worry about long routes to the schools like the kids in the rural areas will have to.

“When you close a school in Winfield, you have parents that are going to have to drive forty kilometres to get to the next closest school,” she says.

However, if parents didn’t want to drive as far, Breton would be the next closest school, says Schwindt. But that would mean the kids would be leaving the WRPS division and going into the Wild Rose School Division.

Karen Becker, the chair of the WRPS board of trustees, confirmed the funding for a school in Wetaskiwin in an email interview.

“We have been approved by the government for an infrastructure project in the city of Wetaskiwin that would see the consolidation of three schools into one new facility. This will create efficiencies which will benefit our entire division,” says Becker.

She says the motions were put forward ahead of the board meeting so they could get feedback from area residents. As a result, they changed the motions and school closure will instead be based on classroom configuration.

“Currently, there are no rural schools in our division that are slated for closure in the near future. We will continue to monitor enrolment, although low numbers have an impact on the programming we can offer,” says Becker. “We are keenly aware of the fact that local schools play an integral role in the vibrancy of our communities. In fact, our Board has prioritized rural sustainability, aligning practices to meet the needs of our community, and honouring the critical role that parents play in the education of their children.”

Schwindt says she believes that there are solutions for rural schools, and she would like to see the division consider them. One idea, says Schwindt, is perhaps combining health centres and schools in the same building, which would allow for more government funding.

Though there aren’t any current changes on the horizon for the Winfield area, Schwindt says she will continue to advocate for the school. She says she stays in touch with Wake and makes sure he is hearing the feedback that Schwindt gets from the school council.

The Free Press reached out to Wake, but were unable to speak to him before the publication deadline.



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