New Westminster’s alternate secondary school programs will stay where they are for now – but the school district remains on the hunt for a better long-term location for its RCAP and POWER students.
The school board voted Jan. 26 to extend the lease on the programs’ current Columbia Square Plaza premises until at least August 2022, with the option to extend for one year beyond that date. The school district will use that time to “meaningfully engage” with students, staff and families to help locate a suitable space that meets the long-term needs of the programs.
The board had originally considered a proposal to move the RCAP and POWER programs to the former Hume Park elementary school building now occupied by the Home Learners Program, shifting the Home Learners to portables on the Lord Tweedsmuir Elementary School grounds instead.
After an outcry from families over that idea, the board agreed to keep the Home Learners Program in its current location.
An alternative proposed by school district staff would have seen the RCAP and POWER programs moved into portable structures on the school district property at 522 Fader St., across from the Hume Park school building.
That idea, however, met with mixed reviews.
COLUMBIA SQUARE NOT IDEAL, BUT CONVENIENT
Trustee Dee Beattie was in favour of the idea, saying the Columbia Square location is “not an appropriate educational setting.”
“The students have to enter from a back door, and that door faces an adult porn shop,” she said. “It is not at all desirable to have young, 13- and 14-year-old girls going in and out of that door on a daily basis. It is despicable, is all I can say. … We need to find an alternate location as soon as possible.”
Jana Buhlmann, who’s part of a newly established parent advisory council for the RCAP and POWER programs, agreed Columbia Square is not a long-term solution but said a move to Hume Park adds a whole new set of concerns.
“My feeling would be to stay at Columbia Square for now. It’s a more central location; the transit options are good and frequent. There are a lot of options for kids in terms of going out over the noon hour, which seems to be quite popular,” she said.
She said a move to Hume Park would make it less convenient for many students and cautioned some might not continue with the program if it were to move.
Buhlmann agreed with Beattie that concerns over access to the existing space need to be addressed because students must enter through a back door where people are often loitering.
Beattie highlighted the benefits of moving the programs to the Fader Street property.
“I see that we’re able to do more for students at risk at the Hume Park location. For all the reasons the Home Learners program love that – there’s green space, there’s a place for students to get their PE graduation credits. There’s so much opportunity for our RCAP and POWER students,” she said.
RELOCATION DECISION NEEDS TIME
Board chair Gurveen Dhaliwal was less sold on the Fader Street location and said the decision shouldn’t be rushed.
“I think the POWER and RCAP community, they definitely deserve a larger, more long-term space, one that’s centrally located, near transit and other amenities, and I don’t think Hume is it,” she said. “I’m not convinced that a move is even necessary at this time.”
Trustee Anita Ansari said the board needs to take its time with a decision, particularly during such an “anxiety-inducing year” amidst COVID-19.
“I felt it was a bit too much to push a move through of any sort during a year where our students are already dealing with so many challenges, as are our staff,” she said.
Ansari said any location needs to consider accessibility for students and not simply change out one set of barriers for another.
LOCATION COULD BE COMPLICATED
Where the program would go, however, won’t be an easy question to answer.
Secretary-treasurer Bettina Ketcham told trustees that, if they’re interested in keeping the programs on property the district already owns, the options are limited; she said staff has already reviewed those options and found the Fader Street site to be the best alternative.
Superintendent Karim Hachlaf told trustees that, given the district is considering the future of both a junior and a senior alternate program, there would be a “huge advantage” in creating a single school community.
He underscored the benefits of the Hume Park setting, noting it would offer the same advantages for the alternate programs as it offers to the Home Learners.
“Unfortunately, our alternate programs have become accustomed to a less-than-adequate educational setting. We think there’s opportunity to expand the kind of offerings we can do outside of that commercial setting,” he said.
Hachlaf said that, if transportation is a barrier, the district could look at using its existing bus on a different schedule to support the alternate students, or it could consider an additional bus, if need be, to support vulnerable students and their families in accessing a new location.
Associate superintendent Maryam Naser said the alternate programs are particularly important in the New Westminster school district.
“Being in a school district with just one secondary school, our POWER and RECAP are our only options for our vulnerable students for whom, for a number of reasons, the secondary school can sometimes be an overwhelming location,” she said, noting students in New Westminster don’t have the option of transferring to a different high school if NWSS doesn’t work out.
“It is really important for us as a school district to be very aware of the location and the opportunities to offer the full curricular experience in our alternate programs.”
Trustees agreed to have the district do more consultation with the RCAP and POWER community and asked staff to report back on that consultation no later than June.