June 9, 2014
RAMON GONZALEZ
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

The Ottewell neighbourhood will be home to a new state-of-the-art school after the Catholic School Board decided to close three aging schools in southeast Edmonton.

Trustees voted to close St. Kevin, St. Brendan and St. James schools but, in a surprising move, they decided to spare St. Gabriel in the Capilano neighbourhood.

"This shows our community's voice was heard," said a jubilant Lana Brenneis, head of St. Gabriel's parent advisory council and spokesperson for the Greater Hardisty Community Sustainability Coalition.

"All our parents and families and parish members were very concerned about the erosion of Catholic education (on the southeast side of the city)," Brenneis said May 26.

The new school, which will be built on the current site of St. Brendan School at 58th Street and 93A Avenue, will run from kindergarten to Grade 9. St. Brendan will close at the end of June to allow construction to proceed.

After voting to move forward in March, the board held consultations on how the closures would affect communities.

REDEVELOPMENT PLAN

Parents and community organizations around St. Gabriel School wasted no time, lobbying relentlessly to keep their school open. Just prior to the board decision, they even proposed a redevelopment plan to keep the school open.

The proposal, which Brenneis says is still in the works, consists of pairing up with a seniors' complex to share costs. The plan would see the existing building torn down and replaced with a small school on one side of the lot and a seniors' complex on the other.

Parents at St. James School were not as strident and the reason is they more or less support the project.

Lianne Traynor, chair of the parents' advisory council at St. James, said there wasn't a lot of parent involvement in the process. "Most of them are sad to see the school close but understand it has gotten too small. The attendance is just too low."

Roberta Lidberg, who has one daughter at St. James and another at St. Kevin, said she was sad to lose the small community and all the benefits that come from close-knit schools.

"We have to be positive. I think we are fortunate they are giving us a replacement school," Lidberg said.

BITTERSWEET REACTION

Donna Said, who has sons in Grades 3 and 6 at St. James, said she feels "bittersweet" about the process.

"I do love the small schools and it's a bit scary thinking of going to a mega-school," she said. "On the other hand, it's exciting to go to a brand new school that will offer the most advanced technology."

The province announced earlier this year it will fund the replacement school so the Catholic district could amalgamate several low-enrolment schools in the mature neighbourhoods.

The original plan was to amalgamate four schools - St. Brendan, St. Gabriel, St. James and St. Kevin schools - into one $25-million school.

According to the district administration, the schools are all at least 50 years old, are too expensive to repair and have low enrollments.

LOW OCCUPANCY

Currently they have a combined total of 2,640 student spaces, yet only 761 students attend those schools. The combined cost of maintaining the four schools is estimated at more than $22 million.

Parents at St. Gabriel, however, never accepted the proposal, saying that by closing so many schools in the area, parents' choice for a Catholic faith-based education would be drastically reduced.

The proximity of the school to Resurrection Church means students can walk to the church to interact with the priest and attend Mass and other events, she said.

In the end, Brenneis, who has two children at St. Gabriel, was surprised trustees voted to keep her school open. "I think part of it was the number of parents and community members who spoke out to save St. Gabriel School," she said.

CLOSE TO CHURCH

Cindy Olsen, chair of the Edmonton Catholic Board, said St. Gabriel was kept open by a 5-2 vote because it is still viable, is close to the church, has formidable community support and its operating costs are much lower.

"The fact that the community has lobbied very hard and come up with a number of different strategies made me feel that if any school has chance at increasing its enrolment and increasing utilization it might be St. Gabriel."

Further, reports from the City of Edmonton based on the 2012 census show an increase in young families in the Hardisty area, Olsen noted.

The new school, which is slated to open in the fall of 2016, is expected to be large enough to take in the 644 students who will be displaced from the three closing schools.

In the June 19 meeting the board will decide what to do with the sites of St. Kevin and St. James when the new school is completed. "We have to be cautious that we don't sell schools that may someday have to be reopened."