Demographic shift straining education system

March 8, 2016
Laura Harris, ATA News Staff Writer

If you settled all the new students accepted into Alberta’s public education system between the 2010/11 and 2015/16 school years into one location, you would have enough people to populate a city the size of Grande Prairie—that is, one with a population of 70,000.

Interprovincial migration, international immigration and a mini baby boom all have contributed to the growth of the province’s student population. Those same factors also have contributed to a lot of Alberta students being in very diverse classrooms that exceed the following guidelines set by the province for class size averages:

Kindergarten to Grade 3 17 students
Grades 4 to 6 23 students
Grades 7 to 9 25 students
Grades 10 to 12 27 students

“Alberta’s teachers and school administrators are taxpayers with families, so they are facing the same economic reality as their fellow Albertans who work in other sectors,” said Alberta Teachers’ Association president Mark Ramsankar. “It’s the demographic reality we face that is different.”

His point is illustrated by recently released provincial stats showing that group layoffs affected more than 17,000 Albertans in 2015, the same year the public school system absorbed 17,000 new students.

Alberta Education has yet to post student population figures for this school year but, according to the ministry, the province had 620,475 students in the public education system in 2014/15. Enrolment information found on the respective websites of Calgary Separate School District (54,000 students), the Calgary Board of Education (114,000 students), Edmonton Catholic Schools (40,100 students) and Edmonton Public Schools (92,358 students) shows that those four major urban school districts are home to almost half (48 per cent) of those students.

Publicly available information on class size averages indicates that ­Alberta classrooms are crowded.

Edmonton Public Schools and the Calgary Board of Education exceed class size average guidelines across all grade divisions according to their class size average reports. Edmonton Catholic Schools didn’t report its class size average, but in an enrolment report it noted that between 2006 and 2015 it experienced a 31 per cent increase in First Nations, Métis and Inuit (FNMI) students, a 237 per cent increase in English language learner (ELL) students, and a 35 per cent increase in students with severe special needs.

Class size averages reported by Calgary Separate School District for 2014/15 show an average of 20.7 students per K-3 classroom, a significant jump from 18.3 only two years prior. The district was not alone in exceeding the K-3 average class size guideline of 17 students. According to 2014/15 class size averages posted by Alberta Education, only five of 61 Alberta school jurisdictions didn’t exceed the guideline.

Alexandra Jurisic is president of Calgary Separate School ATA Local No. 55. She knows that teachers and school administrators who form the membership of her local are facing classrooms that are not only growing larger but also growing more complex.

“What we’ve seen are year-over-year increases in the number of ELL students and a year-over-year increase in the classroom complexity components, and I’m including the ELL students in that,” said Jurisic. “What does that mean for teachers? That means far more legwork in terms of identification of student needs and responding to them with tailor-made learner support plans … and so that begs the question, ‘Do we have enough classroom teachers to address these needs on a per capita basis? … Do we have enough teaching [education] assistants? … Do we have enough wraparound health services to deal with the significant challenges we are facing in some unique areas?’”

For Jurisic, the demographic reality facing the public education system warrants ongoing attention from teachers, education stakeholders and society.

“This is not a one-year discussion. This is a 12-year discussion,” said Jurisic. “This is about the ‘canopy’ of education and the societal needs that we’re trying to address through the schools—and I call them societal because it’s not just about learning skills, it’s about creating capacity for students to become citizens and for some of them it’s a significantly bigger challenge than for others. Our system needs support.”

Ramsankar agreed.

“The price of oil may change, but the need for Alberta children to receive an education is constant,” he said. ❚