CHANCE-Shxwetetilthet will close at the end of this school year, with students being enrolled back into Chilliwack’s mainstream middle schools in the fall.
The announcement that the alternate education site is closing was made to teachers and staff late last week, and to students and parents on March 5. It’s part of a redesign of the the district’s alternative programs, facilities and structures, which have been under review for several years now.
But the news still “came as a shock” to those who work and study at the school, says Chilliwack Teachers’ Association president Lee-Anne Clarke.
“We were aware they had been discussing how to improve alternate education, and they might possibly amalgamate CHANCE and the Education Centre,” Clarke said. “But at no time were we made aware that they were actually shutting down CHANCE. The members at the site were shocked.”
CHANCE-Shxwetetilthet is one of two alternate education sites in the district, currently teaching middle school aged students (ages 12 t0 15). The Education Centre teaches alt-ed high school students, and will reconfigure to include Grade 9 in the fall, as will all other high schools in the district.
There are numerous reasons students choose to attend CHANCE, Clarke says. But the overarching reason is that mainstream school is not the ideal location for them to learn in.
“The idea that alternative education is for kids who are ‘bad’ is an outdated notion,” she said. “They do it for myriad reasons. They do it for anxiety, or bullying at their (regular school) sites, or because they have a difficult time functioning in large sites.”
Middle schools have about 350 students, she says, and students with anxiety can have a difficult time manuevering crowds like that.
“They need something more than the regular brick and mortar schools can provide,” she said. And the staff at CHANCE (and the Education Centre, she adds) “have worked so hard at gaining multiple skills at the various things happening at their sites. They have developed specific skill sets.”
This year there are just over 40 students enrolled at CHANCE, located on Prest Road, which has an operating capacity of 50 students. It offers programs that keep students focused on coming in every day, including lifeskills, a bike shop, yoga, culinary arts, work experience, mindfulness and mental health, expressive and creative arts, and technology.
But the school does have drawbacks. It’s a small space, with only set of student washrooms and one staff washroom. There is no gymnasium, no outdoor structures, and is alongside a busy rural road. The school board discussed CHANCE-Shxwetetilthet closing a year ago, in a March 2017 board meeting. They voted unanimously to close the school in order for the Education Centre and CHANCE to merge.
In that presentation, an ideal new school in the future was presented as well — for much further down the road. Now, instead of the CHANCE students moving into the Education Centre, they will be heading back to the district’s middle schools.
The district’s superintendent, Rohan Arul-pragasam, says they will be met with a “robust intervention plan” at those schools, which will incorporate Grades 6 through 8 beginning in the fall.
The announcement on CHANCE’s website on March 5 reads: “The Chilliwack School District is in the process of a grade reconfiguration and program redesign which is as a result of a comprehensive District plan review to develop a renewed vision for supporting students and programs. This review also included a re-envisioning on how we support students at our District’s TYPE 3 Alternate Facilities. The redesign aligns with the belief that all young adolescent learners will succeed through developmentally appropriate educational experiences by ensuring access to multiple support systems to meet the diverse academic, social and emotional needs of all of our students.”
“The Board of Education approved a motion in March 2017, to merge the Education Centre and CHANCE-Shxwetetilthet Alternative schools. As a result, CHANCE-Shxwetetilthet Alternative school will close effective the end of the 2017-2018 school year, with students being supported at the Education Centre and through a robust intervention plan at our renewed Middle Schools. The Education Centre will continue to operate as grade 9-12 Alternative School at the Elm Street location.”
Clarke says that is not enough information for parents and staff to go on.
“I don’t really know what their plan is,” she says. “Other than folding those kids back into the middle school. They would not give any details as to what those supports would look like when we asked, these are our at-most-risk kids. I would want there to be a well-thought-out, clear plan before these kids are put into a mainstream school.
She also questions why they would shut down a school that is doing so well to deliver programs, when the district isn’t desperate for money.
“We have more money in the system than we’ve had in the last 17 years,” she said. “Why are they choosing to shut down a program that helps vulnerable children? Maybe they have a plan but they haven’t communicated a plan.”
Arul-pragasm said the district plans on using the site in the future for other purposes, “possibly around place-based and projected based initiatives.”