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Nature kindergartens lose support over concerns by teachers union

Setback for nature kindergartens
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A nature kindergarten at Sangster Elementary School started in September 2012.

A nature kindergarten program proposed for two James Bay elementary schools could be in jeopardy after trustees cooled their support for the project.

The pilot program received strong approval at an earlier committee meeting and seemed a sure bet to proceed at South Park Family School and James Bay Community School in September 2014.

But two trustees — Deborah Nohr and Edith Loring-Kuhanga — withdrew their support Monday in the face of opposition from the local teachers’ union.

In a letter to the district, the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association said that setting up yet another “program of choice” would create inequities in the district and force neighbourhood schools to compete with one another for students.

The coast kindergarten proposal called for registration to begin in January 2014 on a first-come, first-served basis. Two spots would be held at each school for children of aboriginal descent, while the James Bay Community School would hold 10 spaces for students in the catchment area.

“At a time when funding for education is at an all-time low, diverting dollars to a specialty program places an even greater burden on individual parents to provide their children with opportunities which should be accessible, free of charge, to all children,” the letter said.

The union said it was never consulted on curriculum or potential personnel issues related to the program.

“It’s a great idea, but I think at this point it’s premature,” union president Benula Larsen told the board.

She said the union has concerns about liability, safety and training, and wants the program delayed a year.

The stance prompted Nohr to suggest tabling the issue until the union’s concerns could be addressed. The board rejected that option.

Loring-Kuhanga then announced that she would be withdrawing her support to allow for further discussions with the union.

Two other trustees — Elaine Leonard and Diane McNally — also signalled their opposition. Both objected to the idea of creating more destination schools that draw students from across the district.

“Yes, we are allowed to have magnet schools, but it comes a point where I say, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” Leonard said. “And I think we have enough choice out there now.”

With the project seemingly headed for defeat, trustees decided to refer the issue to their next regular meeting in November so that it can be debated by the full board. One trustee, Michael McEvoy, was absent Monday.

“I could see the way the votes were headed, so just because I don’t support it, doesn’t mean that the majority of the board couldn’t support it,” Leonard said.

Board chairwoman Peg Orcherton, vice-chairwoman Bev Horsman and trustee Tom Ferris all expressed support for the program, while Catherine Alpha noted that a similar program has been operating successfully at Sangster Elementary in the Sooke district where she teaches.

Deputy superintendent Sherri Bell said the Greater Victoria district has followed all its policies in setting up the program. Officials had an early conversation with the union, and consulted extensively with parents and teachers at the schools, one of which — South Park — is already a destination school, she said.

There were also detailed discussions about student safety, Bell said.

Horsman noted that the proposal came from parents at the two schools. She said that after more than a decade of budget cuts “to have the opportunity to approve something that is literally a breath of fresh air is such an uplifting possibility that I sincerely hope the board will strongly support it.”

Under the proposal, students would spend part of their day learning and exploring outdoors in areas such as Beacon Hill Park, Fisherman’s Wharf and along the Dallas Road walkway.

The program also aims to foster environmental stewardship and promote aboriginal language and ways of learning.

lkines@timescolonist.com