A year on: Schools feeling the impacts of the shutdown

Trent Ernst, Editor


It’s nearly impossible to keep track of how many people have left town since Walter closed a year ago. One metric we can track, though, is the impact on the schools.

Over at Tumbler Ridge secondary, they’re down between 30 and 40 kids. Part of that is just attrition, says Principal Blaine Broderick. “This last year, we had more grade 12s leaving than more grade 7s coming in. Same thing with the year ahead. We have nearly 40 students leaving, and potentially only 20 coming in.”

Knowing this, says Broderick, leads to conservative estimates when it comes to budgeting. “We’re funded per student,” he says. “So every year we have to plan conservatively, where we’re coming in under our numbers. It’s much easier for us to estimate conservatively, to lower our numbers and if we have to hire another person, that’s much better than having to lay teachers off.”

This year, for instance, the school budgeted for 155 students, but they have 168. “That’s significant for our school; that’s almost a ten percent increase.”

Still, that’s down from about 200 students last year, and the trend appears to be continuing for next year. “There are lots of students that don’t know where they will be next year,” he says. “Sometimes we have to include that in our planning, so maybe we don’t budget that student in for next year. We’re trying to do our best guess of students who will be here. People are moving here because of low rent, so we could potentially gain students because of that.”

And while he says they’re remaining optimistic, it is impacting how they are offering their programs. “We are looking at doing things differently, perhaps combining electives,” he says. “We’re already offering some courses every other year. For example, this year we offer Physics 11 and 12, so that way the kids who want those classes can take them. Next year we are offering chemistry 11 and 12. This is something we’ve been doing a while with the sciences, but we might have to do this next year for the humanities. We might have to do this, say, for English, too, or social studies. These are things we’re considering.”

While the numbers at the high school have remained fairly steady throughout the year, things are a lot more volatile over at the elementary school. Principal Kim Ferguson says they started the year with about 200 students registered. “We lost quite a few over summer, but quite a few came in,” says Ferguson. “It surprised me how many new kids there were in September.”

Ferguson says she reported how many kids there were at the end of September. Since then, the school has lost 50 kids. “The school has seen a decrease of 49 kids since the September 30 budget date, which is when the government allots funding,” she says. “But we have had nine new kids show up last week.”

In fact, says Ferguson, that doesn’t really capture the turnover the school has seen, as there have been families that have come and gone in that time.

The elementary school currently has about 200 students. “Back in 2000, 2001, the lowest we ever had was 165. Back then, people could just walk away from the houses, which were owned by the mine. These days, people own. Ferguson says this is creating at least some sense of stability for the school, as fewer people are leaving outright. “Back then, people had nothing to lose by leaving here. Now, mom and the kids are staying behind while dad is going to work in Fort Mac or Yellowknife or William’s Lake.”

And for the year ahead? Nobody knows for sure. Recently, Ferguson sent an email out to all the parents asking if they are planning on being around come next year. She says eight families have responded saying they might be gone before the start of next year. “I also got three emails from people saying they were here for life.”

One person, she says, sent her a note saying: “We live in uncertain times, but the only thing we are certain of is that our kids love your school and are thriving there.”