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Gulf Islands School District to close its last alternative school after no one enrolls

The closure of Phoenix Elementary marks the end of at least twenty years of alternative schooling in SD64
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A child lounges in the playground of Phoenix Elementary School in Salt Spring Island, which is expected to permanently close this year. VIA SD64

The Gulf Islands School District will close Phoenix Elementary School on Salt Spring Island after no one enrolled in classes this year at the last publicly funded alternative school in the district.

Deputy superintendent D’Arcy Deacon said that staff and students at the two-room school have moved to other schools within School District 64.

While Phoenix Elementary had 64 students enrolled in 2018‑19, the number steadily declined in the following five years. Last year, Phoenix Elementary operated with an estimated $90,000 deficit with 34 students registered.

“It’s been kind of a quiet movement over the past few years towards that lower number,” Deacon said. “Everyone was looked after.”

When only six students were projected to enrol for the 2023-24 school year, closing the school became the fiscally responsible choice, Deacon said, adding that overall enrolment at SD64 has remained stable at about 1,450 to 1,500 in the past few years.

At its peak in 2014, Phoenix had 80 students.

In the school’s June end-of-year message, principal Dan ­Sparanese wrote that “every learning moment” had been ­enjoyable for the school’s students and staff. “We are incredibly proud of the growth they have achieved this year, and we have no doubt that they will carry this success with them as they transition to other schools next year,” he wrote.

The closing of Phoenix Elementary marks the end of at least 20 years of alternative schooling in the school district.

The district had also previously been in charge of Windsor House, an alternative school in North Vancouver known for its “democratic” parent-participation practices until 2019.

Formerly part of the North Vancouver School District, ­Windsor House was taken over by District 64 in 2011 and was closed eight years later after it ran a $570,000 deficit in the last two years of its operation.

District 64 board chair Tisha Boulter said that Phoenix Elementary had changed from its roots as a home-school hybrid, with two-days-a-week programming when it was established about 30 years ago.

“At the end of its life, there wasn’t much setting it aside from any of the other elementary schools.”

But Boulter has fond memories of Phoenix Elementary from when her two children attended the school between 2010 and 2016.

“Parents were quite involved,” Boulter said. “I did hot lunch programs … we would grow food and bring that into the curriculum.”

Glimpses of the school’s more exciting past can still be seen on Phoenix-affiliated websites. In 2013, “someone dropped off 11 roosters one day,” leading students to look after the birds for the rest of the school year, according to a website chronicling the history of Gulf Island school gardens.

In the 2017-18 school year, goats were housed in the former chicken pen, and provided double duty as a food composter for the schoolchildren’s leftover lunches.

Gardening and beekeeping were part of the school curriculum, according to snippets of old school newsletters hosted on the site.

But parental involvement slowed down over the years and eventually turned the school into more of a “pick-up and drop-off” site, Boulter said.

She said that the growing outdoor-classroom movement has also likely made the Phoenix Elementary curriculum less ­unusual, as “all of our elementary schools get the kids out in the woods and take them down to the ocean and go on forest walks.”

The district has initiated its required 60-day consultation for Phoenix Elementary’s closing in accordance with B.C.’s School Act. A public meeting about the closing will be held at Phoenix Elementary School at 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 16.

As all students and staff have moved to other schools in the district, the consultation will be unlike other school closings where parents and teachers would normally gather to discuss next steps and potential impacts. Boulter said that the school board will bring cookies and coffee that day to provide an opportunity for community and school alumni to share feedback and stories of Phoenix Elementary.

“I certainly am going to share stories from when I was there and give gratitude for what that space has held for my kids,” she said.

“I’m hoping that we can open that up and other people will feel comfortable doing the same.”

“Often we don’t make those spaces — we don’t give gratitude for when something does close.”

The official vote to close the school will happen on Nov. 13.

mjlo@timescolonist.com

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