Parents in D'Arcy say they are concerned for the long-term well-being of their children if they are forced to travel to Pemberton and back for school, as School District 48 plans to implement a 20-student cap at Blackwater Creek Elementary School, starting next fall.
The D’Arcy school has historically educated kids in Kindergarten through Grade 3, and district decision-makers are pushing for a return to that model, which would force those in grades 4 through 7 to attend Signal Hill Elementary in Pemberton.
With four young ones ready to enter Kindergarten this fall, there are 24 students currently slated to attend Blackwater Creek for the 2023-24 school year. Due to the anticipated demographic distribution across grades, up to 14 kids could be removed from their familiar academic and social circles this fall if the district enacts its plan.
Parents are hoping to find a different path forward, one that would allow Blackwater Creek to remain open to Kindergarteners and seventh graders alike.
A TIGHTLY KNIT COHORT
Erin Stewart Elliott, Michelle Klaui and Daved Moldofsky all have kids enrolled in Blackwater Creek, and all three wish for them to remain through grade 7. The parents have all recently written letters to Pique Newsmagazine to explain their situation. The trio also represents several other D’Arcy parents who likewise have no desire to send their children to Signal Hill.
School District 48 declined to comment or fact-check any points presented by the parents, other than to state that Blackwater Creek’s future will be discussed at an open board meeting on Feb. 8 at 6 p.m. The meeting will be livestreamed on YouTube.
Pemberton is roughly a 45-minute drive south of D’Arcy. However, when factoring in the multiple stops taken by a school bus along its daily route—and the very real possibility of adverse road conditions—a round trip between the communities can take up to two- and-a-half hours, possibly longer for those living along the Highline Road that winds north next to Anderson Lake.
Elliott’s 10-year-old son, River, is worried about having to take the bus for so long on school days, and she understands why. “Two hours in the day is the time he plays with his friends or has time for activities and hobbies, things that are important to him,” she said. “That’s a lot of time for a kid to be in transit.”
Parents are also concerned that sending their intermediate-grade kids—those in grades 4 to 7—to Signal Hill would break up a tightknit school community in D’Arcy. Eight sets of siblings attend Blackwater Creek. School families also comprised a single COVID bubble at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The bonds formed among Blackwater Creek students would no doubt be diminished if they have to attend a school more than 40 kilometres from home.
Klaui has worked in the field of child and family development for 25 years between Pemberton and D’Arcy, and in that time, she claimed she has rarely heard other parents say that Signal Hill has met the needs of their kids. Instead, she said she has seen a number of students return to Blackwater after being bullied and experiencing other difficulties at the Pemberton school.
Elliott and Moldofsky have no firsthand experience with Signal Hill and thus no criticisms aimed at the Pemberton school. However, both believe the experience provided by Blackwater Creek is clearly the ideal fit for their sons.
“We love the multi-age learning environment there,” said Elliott. “It’s innovative, [the kids] are in relationship with each other, and they’re encouraged to work out their problems using their words. I know that the school’s priorities are emotional self- regulation, critical thinking and growth...and those are my priorities.”
“Blackwater Creek is definitely better than the school experience I had,” Moldofsky added.
QUESTIONS OF ENROLLMENT
School district representatives informed Blackwater Creek parents last April that, beginning in September, students in grades 6 and 7 would be asked to attend Signal Hill. According to Moldofsky, chair of the Blackwater Creek Parent Advisory Council (PAC), this was the first time he and his fellow parents had heard talk of a 20-child enrolment cap at their local school. The district agreed to provide an extended timeline to consult with parents about the proposed change.
Blackwater Creek PAC members met with school district assistant superintendent Paul Lorette, chair of the board of school trustees Rebecca Farley, and Signal Hill principal Krista Brynjolfson last November, on a day that parents thought would yield earnest and reciprocal discussion. Instead, Klaui describes the meeting as a “well-rehearsed, disingenuous infomercial for Signal Hill Elementary” in her letter to Pique.
“There’s a bunch of rhetoric around how excellent Signal Hill is, and it really just felt as though [Lorette] was trying to sell us on sending our children to Signal Hill,” she said. “It didn’t feel like he was hearing our concerns for the cohort, or our concern for children going on the very long bus ride.”
An enrollment review released Jan. 6 indicated that Blackwater Creek’s enrollment dropped to nine students across Kindergarten to Grade 3 in 2012, raising questions about the school’s long-term financial viability. For this reason, the school began admitting Grade 4 students, which increased average enrollment to 14 between the 2013 and 2018 academic years. According to the review, the district also accepted one Grade 5 student in 2018-19 and 2019-2020.
However, Klaui and Moldofsky noted that the document omitted one child who attended Blackwater Creek in Grade 6 in 2019 and continued to Grade 7 the following year. Klaui claimed this student had returned to school in D’Arcy after lasting a single semester at Signal Hill. In other words, there is pre- pandemic precedent for Blackwater Creek admitting intermediate-grade kids.
Another key point of contention between parents and the district is Blackwater Creek’s capacity to physically accommodate more students. While the enrollment review recognized there are two main learning spaces in the building, it claims one of them functions as an office, library, kitchen and “multi- purpose space” and thus is not available as a classroom. The cost of installing a second portable classroom is estimated at $670,000.
Yet Elliott, Klaui and Moldofsky believe no new classrooms are necessary to accommodate a K-7 model. They know Blackwater Creek’s facilities well, with Klaui having done measurements on both learning areas, and they argue that the “multi-purpose space” can easily house a K-3 class of 10 to 20 students, leaving the larger classroom for a group of 20 or so older kids.
AVENUES OF GROWTH
The enrollment review also states that an additional teacher would be required in the event Blackwater Creek’s enrollment exceeds 20 children. It claimed the school district attempted to hire a second teacher for the 2022-23 school year, but was unable to do so. Parents understand that the current teacher requires more support, but they don’t believe the district has tried in good faith to find a new candidate.
Klaui’s research has so far failed to turn up any recent job postings for Blackwater Creek. “It’s weird because, you know, teachers apply for jobs,” she said. “[My fellow parents and I] have been looking for the posting and we can’t find anything.”
It is important to note that two extra part- time teachers worked at Blackwater Creek for the 2021-22 academic year, but both were given full-time positions away from D’Arcy the following year. Moldofsky thus feels that district decision-makers “shot themselves in the foot” in regards to meeting their staffing needs.
“If they’re genuinely looking to put another teacher in [Blackwater Creek], you would think [the teachers that were there in 2021] were at the front of that line,” he said. “And they basically removed them by giving them a sweeter position somewhere else.”
Moldofsky also pointed out that it would be easier to find a good candidate if the teacherage next to Blackwater Creek was serviceable. For more than a decade, he and other community members have sought permission to use the building as an after- school daycare, only to be denied under the pretense that it was required to attract and house future teachers.
Instead, the school district rented the buiding out to tenants who allowed the structure to fall into disrepair, the parents claimed. Incremental renovation attempts were disrupted by a rat infestation and a small fire in the summer of 2021, causing the district to consider demolishing the teacherage. Moldofsky feels the building would have been handled far more responsibly over time if the district truly had the intention of hiring a new teacher in D’Arcy.
The enrollment review presents three options for the future of Blackwater Creek. The first two choices involve instituting a 20-student limit at the school, with K-3 children as the focus and the possibility of grades 4 and 5 remaining if space allows. The third option involves expanding the school to K-7, with a minimum sustained enrollment of 45 to 48 individuals and the pricey installation of a new classroom.
The parents believe Blackwater Creek would be sustainable as a K-7 school if appropriate measures are implemented. Moldofsky noted that enrollment has been steadily increasing since his 10-year-old son began Kindergarten in 2017. That year, there were 12 students from Kindergarten to Grade four, but with the introduction of more grades, the school reached a highwater mark of 30 children back in 2021.
The review indicated that Blackwater Creek’s survival would be threatened if enrollment were to dip below 10 students, and there are currently only 10 kids in Kindergarten through Grade 3 for the next academic year. Parents are thus questioning the district’s assessment that a minimum of 45 students are required to make the school a viable K-7 institution.
“If the school works for 10 kids, it should work for 20, or 30, or 40. It shouldn’t have to be 45 before it works again,” Moldofsky opined. “I think they crafted the third option deliberately, to be unattainable.”
Community members await more clarity at the school district’s Feb. 8 board meeting, especially regarding the school’s funding situation. They hope that district representatives will be more open this time to a fruitful conversation about what is and could be attainable for Blackwater Creek. Elliott wrote in her letter to Pique that parents have every desire to assist the district in finding additional money, if more funds are needed to maintain the school in its current configuration.
Moldofsky, though, admitted his frustration.
“As a group [of parents], we don’t really feel like we’re being heard or acknowledged or respected,” he said. “It seems so blatantly obvious that... the school should accommodate the community, not the other way around. I feel like they haven’t shown us [anything that contradicts our point of view].
“I understand that we are a tiny piece of [School District 48] and that we’re not the important part, but I don’t think that means we should be getting screwed.”