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Geoff Johnson: More students means good news, bad news

There’s good news and bad news for public education, and neither has anything to do with labour relations. Well, not directly and not immediately. The good news is about mid- to long-term enrolment projections.

There’s good news and bad news for public education, and neither has anything to do with labour relations. Well, not directly and not immediately.

The good news is about mid- to long-term enrolment projections. Demographers, those numbers-wonks who predict population deviations, calculate that, based on the population up to four years old in B.C., student enrolment numbers will begin to climb around 2016 and continue climbing through 2021.

Based on figures from both the Ministry of Education and the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation, kindergarten enrolment is projected to increase by 5,739 students over the next 10 years, from 37,177 students in 2011 to 42,916 in 2021.

That might not sound like a substantial increase, until you consider that nearly 6,000 kids, counted as full-time enrollees, could eventually create a need for as many as 240 additional classrooms and teachers.

And that’s not all. A 2011 report by B.C. Stats forecasts population growth for children and youth up to the age of 15 over the next 10 years. The number of children in B.C. aged up to four years is forecast to increase from 223,700 in 2010 to 257,100 by 2020.

Children in the five-to-nine-years bracket could increase from the 220,900 counted in 2010 to 253,100 by 2020. Slightly older kids in the 10 to 14 years age grouping are forecast to increase in numbers from 241,800 in 2010 to 254,100 by 2020.

Kids aged 15 to 19 years, at least some of whom will be in grades 10 to 12 will, however, decrease from 284,000 in 2010 to 256,000 by 2020, but the surge of younger children coming below them should compensate.

After years of school district budgets being lacerated by declining enrolment, what’s happening?

According to the numbers folks, in-migration is at least part of the answer. In February’s provincial budget, B.C. predicted a net gain in 2014 of 4,900 people from other provinces and 35,280 people from abroad.

All good news, but before everybody involved in the administration and practice of public education breaks out the bubbly, there is some potentially bad news.

While enrolment declines have created space in school buildings, increases in class sizes have resulted in crowded classrooms. School districts, with every best intention, have been busy unloading redundant school properties based on ministry directives that require them to sell unused properties before major capital-replacement and renovation costs will be approved.

Even when the costs for new or revamped older buildings are approved, there is lag time between when the kids show up and the occupancy permits are granted. Capital costs are rarely, if ever, approved on the basis of demographic projections, so there might be populations of newly arrived kids who have to be shoehorned into existing facilities for years before new space is available.

Then there is the bigger and, as of today, unresolved issue of class size and composition, which has a major impact on classroom availability.

Government needs to abandon the notion that it can sit back and wait for a favourable ruling from the courts on the issue of class size and, more critically, the number of special-needs kids in each classroom.

The fact is that teachers are being expected to handle more and more students with special needs. Ministerial Order M638/95 requires that an individual education plan “is designed for a student with special needs, as soon as practical after the student is so identified by the board.”

As with any profession, there is new knowledge about the spectrum of special needs that make it difficult for some kids to function effectively in an “average” classroom. Along with this, there is increased parental expectation about what public schools should be providing for their kids.

From 2007 to 2013, the number of classes containing four or more students with individual education plans increased by 57 per cent. In 2013-2014, a total of 16,163 classes out of 68,020 classes in public schools contained four or more such students.

The class-size and composition issue is not going away, and with increased enrolment looming, additional kids, a significant percentage of whom will need IEPs, only intensifies the school system’s responsibilities.

Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.

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