MORINVILLE – Parents here who wanted an alternative to the Catholic public school system will get their wish next fall when the Sturgeon School Division will open a permanent secular school.
David Keohane, superintendent of the Greater St. Albert Catholic Regional Division, said progress is being made "to establish a solution that provides voice and choice for parents within the region."
Parents will have a voice to run as school board trustees, and have a choice whether to send their children to a Catholic-based or a secular-based school, Keohane said in an interview.
Over time, the St. Albert Catholic division expects to lose students to the newly-established public system, he said.
"Through a choice mechanism in place, there will be parents who will want their children to participate in a non-faith-based public school," said Keohane. "That is the reality in the rest of the province, and if we're going to start to reflect the complexion of this sort of educational programming in the province, that's a reality for us."
The unique Morinville situation in which the Catholic system is the public system and there are no secular schools has been challenged by some parents who demanded non-religious education as an option for their children.
Parents expressed concern that students could not be shielded from the catechesis components, Catholic values and faith-based learning in those schools. They wanted their children to experience an education free of exposure to all aspects of the Catholic faith.
The new proposal calls for a permanent secular school open by this fall. The Sturgeon School Division will become the public system for Morinville and Legal, while the Greater St. Albert Catholic Regional Division will lose its public status and become a separate school district.
For Keohane, "That will probably alleviate a lot of angst that can be felt through a changed process like this."
Historically, early settlers in Morinville, which now has a population of 8,000, were mostly Roman Catholics. The demographics have since changed, and the town now supports at least eight faith groups. The town's four schools serve about 1,700 students, with fewer than half believed to be Catholic.
Donna Hunter, the parent who launched the group with the original complaint, has since moved her family to Edmonton. She has instigated a human rights complaint over the situation against both the Greater St. Albert Catholic Regional School Division and the provincial government.
"We intend to participate within that complaint process. Through that process, we intend to support the decisions that we have made to date," said Keohane.
Initially, the Catholic school division sought to remain true to its mandate and satisfy the parents who chose a Catholic education for their children. But it was also sensitive to those families who wanted a secular form of education.
In response, the Sturgeon School Division opened Morinville Public Elementary in September 2011, which involved moving students to three different temporary facilities. Children in this secular program are currently taught in modular classrooms attached to Georges P. Vanier Elementary.
"The next step in our journey is to be able to accommodate infrastructure needs in Morinville. We will be entering the process of working with the government to determine how we can accommodate that reality," said Keohane.
One possibility is ownership of a Catholic school will be transferred to the Sturgeon division as a public school, with the Catholic school division compensated.
Keohane said that although a secular program was launched last fall, enrollments still increased in the Catholic schools.
"We have a very strong basis for support for our current schools."