Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 27, 1999
The struggle for Catholic integrity
Schools across Alberta take differeing approaches to shared facilities
By LELLA BLUMER
Special to the WCR
The building of shared facilities for Catholic and public schools has sparked debate in Catholic school districts across Alberta.
But while each Catholic school district shares a common concern - maintaining the integrity of Catholic education in their schools - each of their responses to the issue is unique.
In Sylvan Lake, Catholic and public school students will soon share a new school, although they will be housed in different wings of the building.
In Edmonton, the Catholic board rejected the possibility of a similar facility in the community of Twin Brooks by unanimously supporting a resolution calling for "stand alone" Catholic schools.
In Provost, Catholic and public students share a state-of-the-art Career and Technology Studies (CTS) lab which neither district would have been able to afford on its own.
In Hinton, Catholic high school students crowd into classrooms in the town's recreation centre, rather than using empty space in public schools.
And in "virtual schools" across Alberta, students receive a Catholic education without any buildings at all.
At the heart of the issue is the question of how to establish and maintain a Catholic presence, regardless of the facility in which students find themselves.
Gordon Deck, chair of Red Deer Catholic, says his board is confident a shared facility in Sylvan Lake will work, based on the district's experience.
For nearly 20 years, the Red Deer district has operated the K-9 St. Patrick's Community School alongside a public school and city recreation centre as part of the G.H. Dawe Community Centre.
"We keep going back to our experience at St. Patrick's, and we're prepared to try it again, although we're certainly aware of the issues," Deck said.
"We've discussed this with (public district) Chinook's Edge, and they are well aware of how important it is to us to maintain our Catholic identity."
The new facility will share a common area including a gymnasium, library and CTS lab. Each school will have its own staff facilities and offices. The gym will be partitioned during the day so students from both schools can use it.
Deck says his board recently received a letter from Alberta Learning stating that if the new Catholic school needs more room, it will be expanded. "That takes away any threat of having to fill up empty classrooms in the public building."
But trustees from Edmonton Catholic aren't willing to take that risk. After months of deliberation, the board made clear its position that it "will continue to construct progressive and innovative 'stand alone' facilities on an as-needed, where-needed basis, subject to our facilities master plan priorities and provincial government funding."
The board's position was developed in response to a request from the Edmonton Public board to build a joint school in Twin Brooks.
As a shared facility, the school would qualify for government funding through the Innovation Fund. Without accessing that fund, neither school district would qualify for new school funding because their overall utilization rates do not meet the minimum government requirement.
Edmonton Catholic board chair Ron Patsula says the plans put forward by the public board included shared educational space as well as a shared library, cafeteria and gymnasium.
"The public school kindergarten would be in a classroom in the Catholic school wing, establishing the principle that empty classrooms in one school could be filled by the partner school."
Patsula says the board's position is based on the school district's mission "to provide a Catholic education that inspires students to learn, to work, to live fully and to serve God in one another.
"Our educational philosophy leads us to educate our students in an atmosphere permeated by faith and religious values."
But the decision not to proceed with a shared facility in Twin Brooks isn't sitting well with some parents in the area.
Giselle Carlson recently moved into the community, and was expecting her son to be able to go to school there in the next few years. Now she realizes that's not going to happen.
Carlson says she is a strong supporter of Catholic schools "but I'd take a shared school before no school, because it's closer to home.
"I can totally understand what (the board) is saying. But I think they're looking too far into the future, and in the end we are the ones who have to pay if there is no school because of a 'what if?'"
Carlson says it's likely both the public and Catholic sides of a shared school would expand over the years, because the community is young and growing.
"I think the board should look beyond and consider the needs of the parents in the community."
Camile Joly, chair of the Living Waters school board which encompasses Slave Lake, Whitecourt and Hinton, shares Patsula's concerns about "mixing" students.
It's a familiar situation in Hinton, where for years the Catholic school board has been encouraged to use empty classrooms in public schools rather than build its own Catholic high school.
But Joly admits it's difficult to know where to draw the line. In Slave Lake, Catholic students share biology and chemistry labs with the community college.
"Is it the same thing? I don't know if I can answer that question. I don't see it as the same because they aren't under the same roof all the time."
The situation is similar in Provost, where public and separate school students share a CTS lab in partnership with Lakeland College, the business community, and the Eastpark Educational Opportunities Council.
Dave Feist, vice-principal of St. Gabriel Cyber School in St. Albert, says the question of establishing a religious atmosphere for the school was never seen as an issue.
"Being a Catholic board, it was just assumed that we would offer a Catholic education.
"Religious studies is mandatory for all grade levels, but beyond that, all Catholic teachers teach religious studies along with their other classes, so that what they talk about in religious studies can permeate throughout the curriculum."
Feist says that even though the school's 400 students aren't together in a physical building, there is a lot of interaction among students, and with teachers.
"Even though it's not in a physical space, we do have a school. There is a specific place they come to on the Internet, with hallways, classrooms and locker rooms.
"There is a lot of socializing that happens in the hallways - the students discuss religion and they discuss ethics."
Because enrollment includes non-Catholics, Feist says diverse views are expressed and teachers moderate discussions to some extent to provide guidance.
The key to an authentic Catholic atmosphere, Feist says, is not to restrict the religious environment of the school.