The importance of keeping a rural school viable in the Kamloops-Thompson school district was stressed during a recent public meeting on the fate of the studentless Westwold elementary.
“We heard from many people who have been in the community for a long time and many seniors who spoke about the importance of the school in their lives,” school district Supt. Alison Sidow told KTW.
About 28 people attended the last Thursday’s meeting at the school about 40 minutes east of Kamloops on Highway 97.
The meeting was held to gather public input on what to do with the locked school — close it down, keep it open or convert it into a new facility.
Westwold elementary had no students enrol at the start of the school year as the eight students who filled the kindergarten to Grade 4 school last year transferred ahead of the 2018-2019 school year, leading SD73 to close the doors for the year and move staff to other schools.
During the meeting, there was some discussion surrounding the idea of using the facility as a preschool, as well as other ideas such as creating a program or a school of choice, focused on agriculture, in order to attract more students, Sidow said.
“I think there’s a real desire on the part of the community to see the school become, once again, a vibrant hub and they’re seeking ways to do that,” Sidow said, adding there were many comments shared by people who want a school in their community.
One question posed was whether Westwold elementary would be more viable as a kindergarten to Grade 7 school as opposed to its current model — kindergarten to Grade 4 — which has been in place for a number of years.
Sidow said staff want to explore this idea by asking parents of students in that age range if they would be willing to take their children back to Westwold elementary.
There are 28 students in the kindergarten to Grade 7 age range from Westwold who could attend their local school.
At the meeting, district staff also presented the board with statistics. The numbers showed attendance at Westwold elementary has dropped continuously, from 22 in the 2015-16 school year to just eight last year before no students showed up this year. At the turn of the 21st century, Westwold had 64 students.
District statistics also showed there were four births in the community in each of 2014 and 2015, followed by seven births in 2016 and six births in 2017.
“We know there are preschool children in the community, so we’re really hoping those parents will provide us feedback and let us know whether or not they’re committed to attending that school,” Sidow said.
Statistics also show keeping the school open is not a matter of money.
The school district receives a grant of $166,800 from the Ministry of Education in to operate Westwold elementary, which costs in the neighbourhood of approximately $209,000 to run. With provincial funding for six students, the district is able to break even, Sidow said.
“It’s not really about money at this point,” she said. “It’s about how do we maintain the school because the kids have all left.”
If the school is closed, it will not necessarily be permanent as the school district owns the building and could re-open it if the demand arises.
Many of those at the meeting were seniors. There were also a few parents of last year’s students and preschool-aged children, Sidow said. Eight of nine school trustees were in attendance. Only trustee Meghan Wade was absent as she was attending a retirement party for her husband.
Public feedback is still being sought until Jan. 19, at which time district staff will compile the information and make its recommendation to the board at its Jan. 28 meeting.