Agassiz Centre for Education’s slow transition from its stand-alone building on Cheam Avenue to AESS has begun.
At a parent-school district meeting on Thursday, Oct. 24, administrators and parents came to an agreement to allow students more time to prepare to move to AESS. The move, which was decided during an in-camera school board meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 15 because of staff and student confidentiality, would see ACE principal Sandy Balascak and the program’s students move from their school near the high school into a room off the AESS library.
“Karen (Nelson) had tried to explain what they had foreseen for the movement of the students to the school, and it was quite clear at that point, at least to me, that there was no plan in place,” Martin Betts, father of ACE graduate Emma Potts, said.
“They clearly had no plan to facilitate the move of these … students of ACE who feel they have been somewhat victimized by the school and the administration.”
According to superintendent Karen Nelson, the decision to move was made because of long-term enrolment concerns with the ACE program. The ACE building was renovated at the end of last year, and Nelson said those took place because there was still hope of increasing student numbers.
“At that time, when the renovations were taking place, we were still anticipating that perhaps the enrolment would increase,” she said. “We made the renovations based on what we knew at the time.”
She also added that there weren’t enough students in the program to “warrant another full-time teacher, so we’re just feeling the … educational program would be a better match in the elementary secondary school.”
For Martin Betts, the decision to move after the renovation was a surprising one.
This is a “proven ACE program that has great impact on the community — they do community work, they do community service, they feel a part of the community through guidance that Sandy Balascak has provided for them in this environment that they’ve been given to work with,” he said said.
“Having them come up with this decision six weeks into the 2019-20 school year was shocking.”
It was obviously surprising for many other parents and supporters of the ACE program as well, as about 30 people came out to the Thursday meeting to ask questions of the school district.
Betts and his wife Leighanna arrived at the meeting shortly after it began and said the atmosphere was extremely tense.
“The parents were emotional, abrasive,” Martin Betts said.
“Karen (Nelson) was obviously feeling attacked,” Leighanna Betts added, “which she was being. But she just didn’t really have answers either.”
At one point, ACE student Alison Loosdrecht spoke up, saying the school district had violated its own policies and procedures by not following the SD78 bylaw on school closures. Although Nelson has reiterated many times that ACE is not closing, the bylaw also applies to programs that are moving into a different building, and says that there should be meaningful public consultation about any changes.
After this, Martin Betts said, the meeting was able to move in a more productive direction, with Nelson, the parents and the students agreeing to have a more gradual transition into the new space.
“At that point, the parents and the students, seemed to somewhat settle down and start questioning how this looked … and how we could make it better,” he said.
School board chair Ron Johnstone said he felt the meeting ended on a positive note.
“There were some questions that needed to be addressed. That was the point of the meeting,” he said. “I believe that took place, that the concerns were addressed.”
“Having some enhancements to assist with student learning, those two counsellors that are available to those students now that are part of this whole initiative, hopefully it will address some of the attendance issues,” he continued. “We believe as a board that every student matters, and we’re going to do everything we can to make sure they have a circle of care so they can be successful.”
Now, the transition is beginning to get underway.
Two teachers that will be working with the ACE students when the program moves into AESS started connecting with students in their current building on Monday (Oct. 28), Nelson said.
Students will be given time to get to know the teachers and school counsellors before moving into the building, and also will be given the opportunity to make the new space their own.
“They’re going to set it up the way they want it, they’re taking their ACE banner over,” Nelson said. “Then they’ll start to go over maybe one or two blocks a day and really begin to feel comfortable in the space.”
There is no definitive timeline for the move, Nelson said, adding that it will be up to Balascak and the students to decide when they should fully integrate into the building. Another meeting is planned for Nov. 7 at 5:45 p.m. to update the parents, students and school district on how the transition is going.
At this point, there are still major concerns from parents about the transition, including how the ACE students will be incorporated into the school. The room off the library is small, and ACE students won’t have a place to take a break without going into the rest of the school. There is no dedicated bathroom for ACE students, which means they will need to use ones that are connected with the high school.
There’s also the lingering question of why the program needed to be moved at all.
“Overall, (Sandy Balascak) has done such a big thing for the community with ACE,” Leighanna Betts said. “She’s just done wonders with all the kids that are in there … so it’s just so bizarre now that they want to take that away and move it into AESS.”