School District 48 (SD48) has finally addressed the concerns of many D’Arcy parents that Blackwater Creek Elementary School could revert back to a K-3 model of operation this fall and send senior primary-aged kids in Grades 4 to 7 to Signal Hill Elementary in Pemberton—which is roughly an hour’s bus ride away.
Members of the Blackwater Creek Parent Advisory Council (PAC) gave a presentation at the district’s Feb. 8 board meeting, where they expressed the value of Blackwater Creek to their community as a K-7 institution. As of that night, the PAC had 262 signatures from the D’Arcy catchment area on a petition to support their cause—including the chief and council members of N’Quatqua First Nation and incumbent Sea to Sky MLA Jordan Sturdy—to go with 203 more names from supporters in Pemberton and beyond.
Assistant superintendent Paul Lorette responded with an updated version of the enrolment review first released on Jan. 6, where he outlined financial and practical challenges associated with retaining a K-7 model at the school.
Following a lengthy question period, school board trustees elected to take more time and carefully consider all factors before deciding Blackwater Creek’s fate.
Though no decisions have yet been made, D’Arcy parents generally feel that their concerns are now being taken seriously.
“I want to emphasize that I left the meeting feeling heard,” said Erin Stewart Elliott, who has a 10-year-old son attending Blackwater Creek. “I thought the trustees were attentive to our needs, listened deeply, and asked thoughtful questions. I also think Paul [Lorette] worked hard on the enrolment report and then speaking to our specific questions.”
Added fellow parent Alison Beierlein, who has a daughter in Grade 6 and a son in Grade 3: “I am very happy with the level of thought and consideration the board staff as well as the trustees put into considering the different angles and nuances of the situation and in recognizing that there are still unanswered questions that should be addressed before making a decision.”
Pros and cons
The new enrolment review presents four options for the school’s future.
The first would allow Grade 4 students to attend Blackwater Creek so long as there are fewer than 20 K-3 children in any given year—essentially reverting the school to its pre-2018 configuration.
The second option would welcome Kindergarten through Grade 5, up to a maximum of 20 students with priority given to junior primary-aged youngsters. Lorette recommends this choice to the school board; it would force eight kids entering Grades 6 and 7 to Signal Hill Elementary this fall, but allow everyone from K-5 to remain based on current projections. As of Feb. 8, six spots would remain available for new enrolments.
Parents pointed out that not only would Lorette’s recommendation exclude eight current students, but it would also generate chronic uncertainty for those entering Grades 4 and 5. Under this model, such kids would only be able to attend Blackwater Creek if there are fewer than 20 K-3 students in any given year.
Lorette, though, feels that the problem would be even greater if all eight of Blackwater Creek’s current grades were competing for a seat under the legally mandated cap of 20 students under one teacher.
“With a K-5 system, [uncertainty] could still happen from time to time, but most likely much less often unless there’s an unusual spike in enrolment with Kindergarten one year,” he said.
Option 3 is to keep a K-7 model while adding a second teacher, keeping a minimum sustained enrolment of 45 to 48 kids and covering a one-time cost of $643,000 to renovate or rebuild the property’s existing teacherage.
Option 4, which was absent from the Jan. 6 edition of the review, discusses the possibility of amending the third option with a reduced enrolment through K-7. Lorette explained that having all eight grades at Blackwater Creek would be cost-neutral to the school board at 45 students, but that any lower number will incur an additional price tag ranging from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Blackwater Creek’s projected K-7 enrolment for the 2023-24 academic year is currently 24 to 28. According to Lorette, accommodating this number of children would cost an extra $93,000 to $123,000.
Many parents, including Elliott, Beierlein and Blackwater Creek PAC chair Daved Moldofsky, have wondered why the cost of having either 20 or 45 students is acceptable, but having any number in between is considered financially burdensome. The reason, said Lorette, is because of the district’s funding formula.
Blackwater Creek receives an annual grant between $54,000 and $57,000 for being a small school. This sum represents approximately 17 per cent of the total amount of small school funding provided to School District 48 from the B.C. Ministry of Education on account of Blackwater’s unique geographic location. The district decides how to use the remaining 83 per cent to fund other schools within its jurisdiction.
“While, of course, I would like to see more of the money received on account of Blackwater’s unique small school factors made available directly to the school, I do understand the board has to consider the needs of the entire district,” said Beierlein.
The Provincial Collective Agreement between the BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) and the BC Public School Employers’ Association (BCPSEA) states that Kindergarten classes shall not exceed 20 students, while Grade 1-3 classes shall not exceed 22 students.***
Therefore, another teacher—and possibly additional support personnel—must be hired and trained if Blackwater Creek retains a K-7 model.
Yet, no additional funding would be given if such a reality comes to pass. As a result, having more than 20 students at the school becomes cost-inefficient unless enrolment reaches a certain critical mass, which according to current reports is 45.
D’Arcy parents have also questioned the district’s claim that a new building would have to be erected on site for Blackwater Creek to accommodate Kindergarten through Grade 7. They feel that the school’s two existing rooms—one of which is supposed to function as a kitchen, office, library and multi-purpose space—are large enough to fit up to 30 students between them.
Lorette concedes this point, but argues that School District 48 must plan for the future if Blackwater Creek retains a K-7 model. In his view, the district must be prepared for enrolment to increase as a result of the school admitting more grades. This trend has previously been observed over a short time frame—Blackwater Creek had only 12 students from K-4 in 2017, but four years later it had 30 students across K-7.
“It’s one thing to say that [the current facilities] would work next year, but our job is to look forward beyond next year to year two, three, four and five,” explained Lorette. “[However], we don’t see evidence of enrolment growth to 40-plus students. We don’t actually see enrolment growth beyond 30 for the perceivable future. That’s based on our best information.”
Parents claim that the enrolment review omits one student who attended Blackwater Creek as a sixth grader in 2019 and continued to Grade 7. They’re also aware of at least one instance where a Kindergarten-aged child—the great grandson of former N’Quatqua Chief Harry O’Donaghey and his wife, Madeline—was rejected from Blackwater Creek this year because of capacity restrictions.
As a result, this five-year-old boy has had to attend Signal Hill Elementary and put up with the longest bus ride of any child who lives in or near D’Arcy.
Lorette stated that he has no knowledge of such discrepancies, but emphasized that Blackwater Creek is already over-capacity at 23 pupils and cannot legally accept more unless a second teacher is hired.
There had previously been two extra part-time teachers at the school in 2021, but both accepted different positions the following year. Lorette explained that those individuals were intended to provide temporary support during the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that the district was not able to offer either a long-term contract at that time.
After both part-time teachers departed, attempts to bring in a new full-time candidate for the 2022-23 school year were unsuccessful.
“Recruitment right now is a challenge,” Lorette admitted. “It’s a big challenge. I would say if the board [decided to make the school K-7], the staff will aggressively recruit a new teacher to the best of our ability, but we can’t make any guarantees.”
Parents, too, understand the difficulties associated with filling a rural teaching position. Some fear that the current situation only exacerbates existing issues.
“It is obvious that it’s hard to attract talent when there is uncertainty in the longevity of the role,” Beierlein said. “It is like a flywheel effect: the lower the commitment to grow [Blackwater Creek], the lower the chances of finding staff and the lower the likelihood that all families in the catchment area want to enrol their children at the school, when they know the child will be forced to transition to Pemberton anyway after Grade 3.
“Thus, the enrolment numbers remain low—under 45—which lowers the ability to run the school profitably within the constraints of the existing funding model and lowers the interest from the district to invest more into growing the school.”
Thinking outside the box
It is currently difficult to anticipate when a final verdict about Blackwater Creek’s mode of operation will materialize, but the deliberation process appears to have built trust between district representatives and members of the D’Arcy community.
“It definitely felt like we were heard loud and clear,” said Moldofsky, who has previously criticized the district’s handling of Blackwater Creek’s dilemma. “It has taken us 10 months to get to this point, and I am beginning to have some faith in the system. I am mostly satisfied at this point, but time will tell.”
D’Arcy parents also expressed their willingness to fundraise to help alleviate the expense of renovating Blackwater Creek’s teacherage or erecting a brand-new building to accommodate more students. However, district superintendent Chris Nicholson turned down their offer.
“It would be the responsibility of our Board of Education to provide that additional classroom space if that is the direction they want to go in,” Nicholson said. “I don’t think that it is the responsibility of families to build an additional classroom or space.”
Nonetheless, the PAC still hopes to nudge district decision-makers towards a more unorthodox solution that accounts for as many factors as possible.
“As education is about the children and the community and not just about dollars and cents, I would love to see the district and board trustees explore even potentially unconventional solutions, such as opening up the school to older grades in order to achieve higher enrolment numbers and make it financially viable to have a second teacher,” Beierlein said.
District representatives explained that opening Blackwater Creek up to middle schoolers is not viable, because older students require more advanced facilities, such as a larger gymnasium, project shop and arts room. Beierlein’s counter-proposal is a creative one: enrol youth in Grades 7 to 9 and equip them to complete their academics at Blackwater Creek, while busing to Pemberton one day a week to use necessary facilities at Pemberton Secondary School.
In theory, this approach could push Blackwater Creek’s enrolment up to cost-neutral levels, although it would require significant financial investment in educational infrastructure capable of supporting more than 30 students.
“I know there are lots of parents that would be interested in keeping their kids at the school beyond Grade 7 if that were even an option,” said Beierlein. “If we’re looking to get the [enrollment] numbers up in the 40 to 45 range, extending the enrolment grades higher might make more sense financially to cover those costs.
“I think it comes down to [the question of]: is the district interested in making the investments that would enable Blackwater Creek to grow with the community, or is it better to limit the capacity of the school so no additional investments—whether for teaching staff or additional infrastructure—are needed?”
***An earlier version of this article said the collective agreement limits all class sizes to 20. The 20-student cap only applies to Kindergarten. Pique regrets the error.