Stakeholders from four different regional school districts attended an open house on rural education in Trail on Friday.
Attendees included school board staff and trustees, teachers, representatives from teachers’ associations and unions, parents and community members from school districts 8, 10, 20 and 51, who shared their views on the needs of rural schools with parliamentary secretary for rural education Linda Larson and Ministry of Education staff.
“This community [is] a very passionate community. Like, I know there was a hockey game on tonight, but we still had pretty good representation,” said George Farkas, who is assistant deputy minister in the Ministry of Education and responsible for working with Larson on the rural education strategy. “We had kids out tonight, parents out tonight. We had school district officials, elected trustees, as well as local unions, so that shows a pretty high level of engagement right across the board, which I think was really beneficial because it gives us a good sense of what the issues are from various different perspectives.”
Larson is MLA for Boundary-Similkameen and in summer 2016 was tasked by Premier Christy Clark to create a rural education strategy. To develop the strategy, Larson is currently engaged in a public consultation process. The first step was to collect public comments through an online discussion and survey senior school district staff, which took place in the fall and winter of 2016. The second part of the strategy includes a number of open houses across the province. Larson was only able to attend four of them personally, including the one in Trail.
The discussions were focused around the 11 themes identified in the Draft Discussion Paper that emerged from the online discussion: rural school definition, remote school definition, rural school district definition, a rural school is the heart of the community, quality education and diversity, teaching challenges, rural schools support jobs and the economy, rural schools as the hub for culture and generation integration, facilities rental and use, fear of school closure, and the physical condition of rural schools.
Asked if what she heard at Friday night’s meeting was consistent with what she heard at the other meetings she attended, Larson said, “Yes it is, very much so. Same problems everywhere that everybody experiences, which is really good because then it means that there’s three or four really strong points that can be worked on, because those are the strongest things.”
“We’re going to work on the recruitment and retention one first,” she added. ‘That’ll be the first one you see come off the plate and then the others as we work our way through.”
Larson has also recently worked on a report regarding the recruitment and retention of doctors in rural communities that will be tabled sometime this week.
Issues raised by those who attended the Trail open house included challenges with hiring support staff, challenges attracting teachers when there may be limited career opportunities for their spouses, the rising costs of school facility rentals for community groups and more.
Andy Davidoff, president of the Kootenay Columbia Teachers’ Union, presented a brief to Larson on behalf of the West Kootenay District Council, which includes the Nelson District Teachers’ Association, Kootenay Lake Teachers’ Association, Arrow Lakes Teachers’ Association, Boundary District Teachers’ Association, Kootenay Columbia Teachers’ Union and the Creston Valley Teachers’ Association. The brief emphasizes the need for sustainable and predictable funding for rural schools.
Speakers also raised the issue of community poverty. More schools are having to feed their students, who might not otherwise eat breakfast and lunch, and schools are also finding less support from community sponsors.
Asked about this, Larson said, “Overall, everywhere you go there’s going to be issues. In some places, I think people choose to live in some of the more rural communities because their overall costs of living tend to be lower, so you do tend to get a gathering or a few more people living on lower incomes in those rural areas and that does create some issues as well. But you know, they all work together. It’s all part of the same thing — school, community — and the stronger you have the school, the stronger the community, the stronger those people will be as well.”
Those who still wish to contribute to the conversation about rural education can do so at engage.gov.bc.ca/ruraleducation by commenting on the Draft Discussion Paper before Mar. 15 at 4 p.m.