CBE will continue to manage awareness sites for students in difficulty

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The ‘Discovering Choices’ program will continue to operate from leased space in Bowness and Westbrook

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After hours of emotional back and forth debate, public school administrators decided in a 4-2 vote on Tuesday to keep two unique outreach sites open to at-risk students, rejecting a controversial recommendation to close and relocate .

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The ‘Discovering Choices’ outreach program in Bowness and Westbrook will continue to operate from rented commercial space, providing unique, one-on-one support to struggling students, many of whom have suffered trauma and face serious behavioral and of learning.

Several Calgary Board of Education administrators have vehemently opposed the administration’s recommendations to move the programs to regular high schools – a proposal that would have seen more than 200 Bowness students go to Robert Thirsk High School in the ‘extreme northwest and move about the same. Westbrook’s number at the South West Alternative High School.

“Awareness is for students who find that regular programs just don’t meet their needs,” said councilman Dana Downey, who voted against the closure recommendation.

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“As someone who has worked with at-risk youth and seen them try to fit into a mainstream setting, often they just can’t, usually because of anxiety,” she added.

“Change itself is a barrier for many of these students. And many in Bowness have already left Robert Thirsk, and with that they should return, facing fears.

Administrator Susan Vukadinovic agreed that forcing at-risk students to try to learn in a crowded high school like Robert Thirsk could set them up for failure.

“Robert Thirsk may not be a good fit because of the greater vulnerability and anxiety of outreach students,” she said.

Reading the submissions provided by students and program staff, Vukadinovic added, “One stakeholder wrote to say, ‘Don’t transfer students to a regular high school with their own special space. Thus, students will feel alienated in their own space as they have to follow their specialized curriculum.

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“As young people, the anxiety of being different or being seen as ‘stupid’ is extremely stressful. Having to see peers enter a regular system could be embarrassing for some students.

Only two administrators, Marilyn Dennis and Nancy Close, supported the closure and move recommendations, saying programming could be more robust and expanded in a regular high school, but with the same strong staff support.

“It’s about how we commit to each student, to succeed with the goal of getting them to graduate,” Dennis explained.

“And it’s clear how important relationships are and how staff will follow these students to the new locations.”

Close agreed, but added that if the motion to close does not pass, the CBE should consider saving costs and public money by partnering with the community.

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“Why aren’t programs like this housed within a community service agency? Close asked. “I just don’t see us having to work alone as a requirement.”

Dany Breton, CBE facilities superintendent, said that due to the province’s new funding formula, which provides maximum dollars to schools that have at least an 85 per cent utilization rate, it was difficult to obtain funding for outreach programs with low enrollment.

Additionally, moving these programs to buildings like Alternative High School, which also has low utilization rates, could solve two problems and save money.

But Vukadinovic argued that the CBE faces these challenges because the province has not fully funded the operating costs of the CBE’s four neighborhood secondary schools.

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In addition to Bowness and Westbrook, outreach programs are also offered in a town center and in Marlborough, also in unique retail spaces.

Vukadinovic said current rental costs total just over $550,000. But prior to the 2020-21 school year, the CBE was only receiving a grant of $62,500 per outreach site for a total of $250,000 per year.

“That means that under the old provincial government funding formula, leases were costing us $300,000 more a year than what we were getting from the provincial government,” she said.

“So we were filling a funding gap of $300,000 from the provincial government.”

On top of that, she added, provincial funding for outreach programs has changed for the 2020-21 school year and now the CBE receives a fixed grant of just $150,000 to operate the four sites.

The CBE also argued that it faces continued operational challenges after receiving fixed funding from the province for two consecutive years.

But Alberta Education said UCP government is increasing spending on education by $700 million over the next three years and that school boards are sitting on nearly half a billion dollars in operating reserves, with another quarter billion in capital reserves.

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