The New Westminster school district isn’t giving up the search for the perfect location for its alternate education programs.
The district has renewed its existing lease at Columbia Square Plaza until August 2022 to give staff a chance to find a new and better place for the RCAP and POWER programs for secondary school-aged students.
Associate superintendent Maryam Naser and district principal Pam Craven reported back to school trustees at their Feb. 23 board meeting after following up with staff, parents and students about the future of the programs. Those discussions stemmed from a board motion on Jan. 26 that the district “meaningfully engage” with the alternate program community about a potential move away from the downtown space.
Naser told the board consultation with RCAP and POWER staff revealed they’re concerned about losing such a central location for the programs, but they’re not sold on the Columbia Square setting.
She noted teachers are looking for long-term stability but not in the current space. They’d like to see a location that would allow them to offer physical education programming, provide access to outdoor space and include more spaces for private conversations for counsellors, youth workers and the like that are challenging in the existing rental office space.
PARENTS VALUE CENTRAL LOCATION
Craven told trustees she had made specific efforts to reach out to parents directly so she could hear from those who might not have filled out a district survey or attended a PAC meeting where the relocation was discussed.
“There was kind of a split,” she said. “The central location was the drive for staying where we are, but they recognized even then that it’s the central location they liked, not the actual being at Columbia Square.”
Craven said parents generally expressed a need for a better learning environment for their children – one in a better location for them to go outside when they need to “de-escalate” or calm down.
A suggestion from the district that the program could move to the Hume Park area – using modular structures on a district-owned property on Fader Street – met with mixed feelings, she noted. Though it was closer for some families, others thought the move would be a challenge. Craven said families who were concerned about the move out of downtown appreciated the suggestion that the district could provide a bus or transit passes to help students get to Hume Park.
Naser said students similarly expressed concerns about the loss of a central location, but the vast majority said they would continue to attend the program even if it moved.
Students also shared ideas about how to make a new location better for them – such as having flexible space, room for leisure activities and somewhere to store their belongings.
“Students and families are also expressing a desire for some facilities and access to spaces that are more typical of a school environment,” she said.
SEARCHING FOR AN IDEAL LOCATION
Naser said the loss of a central location would be a downside for the programs but suggested that loss could be overcome with support from the district.
“In an ideal world, we would have a central location that is a different location from the one that we are in,” she said.
Superintendent Karim Hachlaf told trustees the district doesn’t want to drag out the decision-making process, understanding that it causes anxiety for everyone involved, but it does want to find the right long-term location for the programs.
“Our alternate program model is absolutely essential to successfully supporting the diverse needs of our students,” he said. “Ideally, there’s no question, we want a long-term facility that would not require another move in 10 years.”
He said that long-term vision is one of the downsides of potentially using the Fader Street property, which the district has pegged for use for a future middle school.
Hachlaf also noted that, given the feedback from the alternate program community, the ideal solution would be a central location that’s more appropriate to a school environment and that could pave the way for future growth.
“We have not exhausted all possibilities, and by using the one-year extension that we have received at Columbia Square, we can strive for the ideal solution,” he said. “What you’re hearing is, I don’t want to let go of that opportunity. Our alternate program community deserves nothing less.”
Hachlaf said staff will continue to work on the issue and will return with another update for the board leading in to the next school year – well in advance of the lease expiration in 2022.