The growing community of Morinville (Alberta, Canada) has a burgeoning youth population; fully one-quarter of the area’s citizens are under 18. Schools in the area are feeling the pinch, and it’s stirring up a holy controversy around the touchy subject of religious accommodation… or the lack thereof.
You see, Alberta is one of the Canadian provinces that still retains both public and Catholic school boards, a vestige of historical agreements made to appease a wary French-Canadian population who feared the takeover of their culture by English Protestantism if they joined the Confederation. Now, students in Morinville have two school boards vying to serve them.
Both boards recently applied for government funding to build a new school, given the overcrowding in the area’s existing schools: the Catholic board wanted another elementary school, while the public board hoped to create the city’s first secular high school. But when Premier Jim Prentice unveiled plans for the new building, only one was slated for Morinville.
Believe it or not, the new school will be the Catholic one — the city’s fourth Catholic school — despite the fact that the city has no secular secondary school option available once children age out of its single K-7 public school.
As recently as 2011, parents had to petition the Alberta Human Rights Commission for access to any secular option at all. At that time, the city had four Catholic schools and no public schools. Rather than build a new school with state-of-the-art amenities and room for growth, the city converted one of the existing Catholic schools into a public elementary school.
Now the public board is seeking to establish a high school for those young graduates, who will otherwise be forced to transfer into the Catholic system regardless of their religious affiliation when they complete their schooling. This is not an ideal transition for anyone, but it may be especially fraught for the area’s large First Nations and Métis populations, given the history of racist indoctrination and abuse at the hands of Catholic educators in Canada’s residential schools.
If the Catholic school declines to enroll them because of their own overcrowding problem — and the school reserves the right to give preference to Catholics — those students’ only option may be a long bus ride to an out-of-the-way location.
The public board has attempted to add a Grade Eight class to its lone elementary school, but it remains a problematic solution: the building’s infrastructure (such as toilet spaces or drinking fountains) was designed with smaller bodies in mind, and the building lacks purpose-built spaces for certain high-school classes, like science labs, art/drama/dance studios, computer labs, or cooking facilities for food studies.
The Alberta government argues that there is still a chance for Morinville to get its public high school if their application meets government criteria, including specification of a planned site. The public board has countered that it cannot acquire a site without first securing funding, and that it has already worked with government officials — even a former education minister! — to ensure that its proposals are up to snuff. At this point, it’s not entirely clear what more can be done, says public school superintendent Michele Dick.
“All I know is that when they announced 55 schools [to be built], we weren’t on the list,” she told the Edmonton Journal. “And I think that’s a missed opportunity.”
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