Trustees approve new configuration for Stettler schools

New plan will see middle school eliminated, grades split between other schools

Trustees have approved a motion that is expected to result in major changes for the distribution of grades in Stettler’s public schools for September 2015.

The Clearview Public Schools board based its motion on a recommendation from superintendent Peter Barron, contained in a 48-page report presented at the board’s regular meeting on Thursday, Jan. 29.

The plan, which is expected to take effect for the 2015-16 school year, would see Stettler Middle School eliminated, with its grades split between the other schools in the Stettler complex.

Stettler Elementary School would expand to include Kindergarten through Grade 6, while William E. Hay Composite High School would then cover grades 7 through 12.

Each of the two schools would have one assigned principal. Stettler Outreach School would continue to operate, either with a designated site principal — as is currently the case — or under the direction of the high school principal.

Botha School, which currently provides Kindergarten through Grade 5, would expand to include Grade 6, bringing the school in line with the new configuration in Stettler.

Barron’s recommendation gave the board the option of continuing with the “status quo” configuration or adopting the new one. The board voted unanimously to adopt the new configuration, which was noted by chair Cheri Neitz.

“That’s good to see unity, moving forward,” she told the Independent this week. “We want this to be a positive move.”

Barron’s report took into consideration the history of the schools in Stettler, as well as consultations, surveys and discussions that have taken place over the last couple of years.

These included a facility analysis conducted at the end of 2012, a major survey taken in the fall of 2013, and a research summary completed in February 2014 by the University of Calgary’s Joanne Steinmann.

The superintendent was tasked in October with reviewing “the issues pertaining to schools in the Town of Stettler through staff, student and parent engagement, and to provide the Board with recommendations for their resolution in January 2015.”

The current configuration has been blamed for various issues, such as budgetary concerns, problems with sharing of resources and facilities, and an awkward transition into high school for students arriving from the division’s smaller rural schools.

Parents, students and other community members had the opportunity to offer their final input through an electronic survey, introduced at an open house in January.

Neitz said the survey results were made available to board trustees prior to their vote last week, but doubted they would be made public, owing to privacy concerns. She added that the survey only represented part of the data made available to the trustees.

“There were a lot of factors into making this decision,” she explained. “Ultimately, it came down to what we felt was best for the students.”

After the division announced the board’s decision on Thursday, its Facebook page was flooded with comments — some of which were apparently deleted — expressing displeasure, outrage and fear.

“People are having a reaction that’s kind of expected in some ways,” Barron told the Independent this week. “They don’t yet know all the details.”

He said he anticipated that many of the greatest changes would be administrative, and that in many ways, students’ educational experiences would not change dramatically, with the same classes taught by the same staff.

Many of the details are yet to be determined, he said, adding that the division will continue to hear the concerns of the public as it hammers those out.

“It was up to the board to give us direction, and then we would figure out those details,” he said, noting that he had heard many valid concerns and others that appeared to be “perception issues.”

He said the most common concern appeared to be over the potential mixing between Grade 7 and 8 students and high schoolers.

Barron cited his own experience with high school students in Stettler and other areas, saying it was “unfair” to assume that they would have a negative influence on younger students.

He also responded with a public message posted online, reassuring parents that students in younger grades would still be well supervised and would not have all the freedoms and privileges afforded to high school students.

“People are concerned,” he said, adding that as more information becomes available, “their anxiety will be reduced and they’ll see that this will turn out to be a really great decision, actually.”

Trustee Ken Checkel pointed out during Thursday’s meeting that schools like Castor’s Gus Wetter School have operated with a K-12 environment with no major concerns.

“I’m kind of shaking my head about that,” he said. “I don’t know where that concern is coming from.”

“Just because they’re in the same school doesn’t mean the same rules apply,” noted trustee Karen Holloway, who represents Castor.

According to Barron’s report, the new configuration would bring a host of benefits, from balancing numbers of students between the schools and aligning their athletic programs with others in the province, to allowing long-term financial stability for the schools.

Neitz said the change would align the schools with the current provincial curriculum.

She also cited other school divisions that reported declines in students dropping out under this alignment of grades.

The new configuration will also reduce the number of transitions for students moving through the Stettler schools or coming from other rural schools to Stettler.

“Even though they’re in one big complex, it’s still a transition,” said Neitz, adding that research has indicated the wisdom of reducing those transitions where possible.

A press release issued by the division said the changes would result in a “new school culture,” allowing more opportunities for collaboration and improved utilization of school facilities.

In response to concerns that the transition would result in job losses, Neitz said she didn’t anticipate that would be the case, as the number of people on staff is generally tied to the number of students enrolled, though she could make no guarantees.

“Generally, you hire for how many students you have. . . We’re not losing students,” said Neitz, adding that the provincial budget, due in March, would play a major role in determining staffing levels for next year.

Neitz said that Barron is already beginning discussions with division and school staff as to how to implement these changes, and that further details will be communicated to the board in February.

During Thursday’s meeting, trustee Yvette Cassidy applauded Barron’s efforts and said she hoped it would be the end of a struggle that has lasted upwards of a decade.

“You had the balls to go out and do this and come back with a recommendation that I think everyone can embrace,” she said. “I’m just really looking forward to putting that to bed.”

Trustee Staci Gerlitz, who represents Stettler along with colleague Dave Goodwin, also said she believes the new configuration for William E. Hay will help smooth the transitions for students.

Goodwin, who moved to accept Barron’s recommendation, agreed with her, saying, “It has so many advantages to what’s going on.”

“I know there is going to be some huge growing pains,” Neitz said during Thursday’s meeting, “but I can see some huge opportunities here, too.”