It was a year of highs and lows last year for the Vernon School District.
Declining enrolment and the province-wide teachers’ job action were tempered by the construction of a brand new Vernon secondary school and an increase in the graduation rate for aboriginal students.
The enrolment decline is projected to finally level off around 2019, although board chairperson Bill Turanski said trustees are hopeful that it will be sooner than that.
“We have a number of potential challenges coming up, including trying to budget in a time of limited financial resources and ministry ‘downloading’ to districts some of the costs normally funded by the ministry, the possibility of teacher bargaining,” said Turanski. “We also have the issue of student poverty, where children are coming to school hungry.
“And we are currently looking at restructuring our secondary schools due to declining enrolment and to accommodate any changes in graduation requirements. The ministry is in the procress of reviewing and possibly developing new graduation requirements.
“We have held several public meetings on this subject in order to determine what parents and the public feel that secondary school programs and educational goals should feel like — what skills do they want their children to have at graduation?”
When it comes to job action, Turanski said trustees have learned that a bargaining structure is needed that would reduce or limit the need for teacher job action, yet would avoid having contracts imposed or legislated.
“An extended period of disruption from the normal functioning of the school district due to any form of teacher job action has a negative impact on student learning, employee morale and the effective operation of the district,” said Turanski.
The district takes particular pride in the new Vernon Secondary School, which he calls a state-of-the-art structure with the latest energy-saving features including geothermal heating and cooling, large windows for solar lighting, energy-saving light fixtures as well as a theatre and workshops for trades.
“It will be a source of pride to the students, the school district and the community,” said Turanski. “There is always something exciting and stimulating about new buildings, and VSS will likely become the centrepiece of the school district”
On the other side of town, Fulton secondary school has received formal recognition from the Nicaraguan Ministry of Education for the work of the school’s global education students who on their annual visits — nine to date — to that country have spent time and resources working at and supporting the Casa Hogar Orphanage.
Turanski said there is much to be proud of in the district, from the quality of the student music and drama productions at various schools to the construction of the Kekuli on the Okanagan Indian Reserve, from the success of the district’s early learning and early reading programs, to the work of the district’s administrators and teachers in attending after-school professional development sessions.
“The district is currently focusing on improving student numeracy skills, and teachers are receiving professional development to enhance teaching in this area, including in-class demonstrations of teaching techniques. We anticipate a marked improvement in student success in mathematics in the current year.”
The district continues to work at improving aboriginal graduation rates. The Aboriginal Education Committee has developed and adopted a strategic plan that includes creating an Aboriginal Enhancement Agreement.
“The district’s aboriginal graduation rate is above the provincial average but we will not be content with anything less than 100 per cent. We still have a way to go but we will continue to do everything possible to achieve that goal. What is encouraging is that the rate is increasing almost every year.
“While we tend to focus on graduation as a goal for our aboriginal students, we should also be preparing them for life beyond Grade 12 — graduation is a beginning not an end.”
With the popularity of French immersion in the district, there is a real possibility of a shortage of space. The kindergarten program is moving to Alexis Park elementary school in the fall to accommodate more students.
“The secondary school restructuring could provide space but that remains to be seen. Last year, there was space to accommodate all students who wanted to register in French immersion and we even had room for several out-of-district students.”
And even with the challenges of falling enrolment, cuts to funding and staff cuts, Turanski still feels passionately about public education, a passion that began when he first walked through the doors of his elementary school at six years old.
“The educational system is something I know and I enjoy the challenges it can bring,” said Turanski, who was an educator and school administrator for 36 years, 34 years as a principal in this district. “I also enjoy working with people and this district has so many outstanding and dedicated individuals that it is a privilege to meet and work with them in our common goal, which is to provide students with the best education possible.
“Our students often have a much different perspective of the world than many adults. They are generally eager, optimistic, enthusiastic and energized. It can become very contagious and many of the adults who work with them exhibit those traits.
“As a school trustee, where else can one get a job that offers so much.”