Enrolment growth tested Edmonton schools in 2023: Board leaders want more schools built in 2024

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The leaders of Edmonton’s two major school authorities best describe 2023 as “extraordinary” and “busy.”

Edmonton Public Schools board chairwoman Julie Kusiek and Edmonton Catholic Schools board chairwoman Sandra Palazzo spoke with Postmedia about the achievements and challenges their schools have faced this past year and their hopes for 2024, in separate year-end interviews.

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Kusiek summed up 2023 by saying “it’s been a busy year” with high student enrolment growth, noting that the division is not only excited to see all the learning that students are up to but it is also a great place to learn.

“We are seeing on average about 5,000 new students every year. Since September, we’ve seen 5,800 new students. So you can imagine our schools are a busy, busy place accommodating for all of those new students, ” Kusiek said.

Meanwhile, Palazzo attributed the “extraordinary” successful year to the resilience and commitment showcased by the division’s students, families and staff.

“There’s an active energetic nature of developments that happens in our school division. We’re always getting new kids coming into our schools, we’re getting new staff coming into our schools,” said Palazzo.

A year of achievements

Edmonton Catholic has officially welcomed a new chief superintendent on Aug. 1. Lynnette Anderson is bringing with her a deep focus on improving student growth and achievement.

“And she uses this collaborative responsive model of instruction and assessment and data-informed decision-making. She’s very creative and innovative and an excellent team builder,” Palazzo said. “If we’re going to look at the year, let’s look at a fantastic year that comes from the people, from our leaders, from our senior administration.”

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In 2023, Edmonton Catholic has been committed to creating outdoor spaces and ensuring playgrounds are inclusive and accessible by 2030.

“We’ve had the opportunity to open up a lot of outdoor play spaces. In 2023 Edmonton Catholic Schools supported three playground builds and eight outdoor classrooms,” Palazzo said.

The division is also celebrating the construction of three schools in areas of great need.

“So the the ones that are currently under construction are Father Michael McCaffery Catholic High School in Heritage Valley, which is scheduled to open in September 2024. St. Josephine Bakhita Catholic Elementary/Junior High School in Lewis Farms has an opening anticipated for September 2025. And Blessed Carlo Acutis Catholic High School in Dunluce/Castle Downs is scheduled to open in September 2026,” Palazzo said.

For Edmonton public, Kusiek highlighted being “a school division that really values the choice,” pointing at having different programs that are available to families and to students that best suit their needs.

“We’re creative and we’re innovative in what we do and we really work hard to see students be successful,” said Kusiek.

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The business and innovation alternative program, which is a reflection of what Edmonton public has been hearing from the community, is an “exciting” achievement, Kusiek said. The program will begin in September of next year and will be open to students in Grades 10 to 12.

“Students are telling us they are interested in learning more about business and innovation. It’s a great opportunity for students to practice their business and innovation skills in partnership with our business community right here in Edmonton.

A new public school, Elder Dr. Francis Whiskeyjack School, is anticipated to open its doors in the city’s southeast for the 2024-2025 school year.

“We do have one other school currently funded for construction in the Edgemont neighborhood,” added Kusiek.

‘With enrollment growth comes some challenges’

Edmonton public has seen around 10,000 new students in the past two years and Kusiek says this number is enough to fill 10 new kindergarten to Grade 9 schools.

“So we very much need new schools right away as soon as possible,” Kusiek said.

Meanwhile, Edmonton Catholic Schools has increased by more than 4,500 students in the past two years.

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“We have to understand that many of them are beginning, they’re beginning English language learners. And so we’ve had to add considerable multidisciplinary teams and supports for these students in classrooms. So that’s been taxing. These have been resources and supports the division has had to provide for these students and families,” Palazzo said.

Funding is also another challenge, not only for Edmonton public but also for Edmonton Catholic. Both boards advocated for changing the three-year weighted moving average formula.

“We continue to advocate for the reduction of the weighted moving average to a two-year calculation or a return to per-pupil funding. This would allow us to better manage the demands of a rapidly growing population,” said Palazzo.

For 2024, Kusiek is anticipating more work to help improve the mental health of its staff and students, fight racism and modernize some of the division’s existing schools. It is also anticipating more schools to be built.

Palazzo is anticipating welcoming more students, noting that students are an investment in Alberta’s future.

“I anticipate a division with many more schools so that we can provide our students with the best possible education,” Palazzo said.

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