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The Echo Boom impacts Central Okanagan schools

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For five-year-old Mackenzie Zimmermann, next Tuesday can’t come soon enough.

That’s the day she will start what she calls “big school.”

“She’s ready, she’s more than ready,” says her mom, Nikki. “She’s on the countdown.”

Mackenzie, fresh out of pre-school, is one of an estimated 1,542 kids who will enter kindergarten in the Central Okanagan next week, a group the local school district says is the “tip of the iceberg” when it comes to an anticipated huge influx of children entering the school system over the next few years.

The number of children entering kindergarten here this year is expected to be up more than 100 students over last year, and that number is expected to climb even higher over the next three years, running between 1,600 and 1,700 kindergarten kids each year.

That’s a lot of new students to absorb into the system.

“It’s the Echo Boom,” says Central Okanagan School District secretary-treasurer Larry Paul.

“The kids of baby boomers are having kids and those kids are now entering the school system.”

Some of the biggest questions for school district officials here is how to plan for an immediate future that will see a growing flow of students enter the school system over the next few years.

Unlike some other school districts in the province that are facing the same scenario, the Central Okanagan did not experience much of a decline in numbers in the last few years.

As a result, the school district doesn’t have excess space that was shut down to handle previous declining enrolment.

So transfers are becoming more common, as many schools, especially those in the kindergarten “hot spots,” such as parts of West Kelowna, the Mission, Black Mountain and Lake Country, are already jam-packed.

According to demographer Judy Shoemaker, the school district’s planning manager for special projects, the overall number of students in the Central Okanagan is not expected to change very much this year.

But the makeup of the roughly 21,500 students expected this year in the K-12 system will change.

With fewer students exiting the system from Grade 12 and more coming in at the kindergarten level, the ripple effect that will cause over the next few years has school officials looking at reconfiguring the grades for elementary, middle and high schools.

Except for Lake Country and the Mission, currently Central Okanagan elementary schools go from kindergarten to Grade 6, with K to 3 being primary. (In Lake Country and the Mission, elementary schools go to Grade 7.) Throughout the district, middle schools offer Grades 7 or 8 to Grade 9 and high school Grades 10 to 12.

The district is currently looking at changing that configuration to kindergarten to Grade 5 at the elementary level, Grades 6 to 8 at the middle school level and Grades 9 to 12 for high schools.

According to Shoemaker, while there is an educational case to be made for such a change, what is also prompting it is the growing number of kids entering kindergarten.

The school district, which was already pushed for space at many of its schools, is trying to create room while it makes its case to the B.C. Ministry of Education for more classroom space.

But in a system that requires school districts to show there is overcrowding before approval of more money for new schools is considered, planning for a future with more students is not the easiest task to complete.

“They (officials with the ministry of education) want to see the whites of the eyes before they will agree to funding for new schools because they have been burned before,” says Shoemaker.

She said in the past, expectations of growth or new developments expected to spur growth in areas of other school districts has not occurred, and that resulted in schools being built that were not filled.

So now the ministry wants to see the need first. That makes it difficult for school districts to plan for the future, a future it knows will be more crowded than in the past.

•••

On the ground, the expected higher numbers of kindergarten kids has principals and teachers at affected schools hopping as they prepare for Tuesday’s start of the school year.

At Chute Lake Elementary in the Mission, a school that opened just three years ago with 400 students and is already overflowing with nearly 500 students.

Kindergarten teachers Brenda Capozzi, Kellie Meier and Joan Dougherty, like their colleagues at every level in the district, are hard at work planning lessons and preparing their classrooms.

With provincially mandated class sizes of 22 students for kindergarten, they know how many kids they will have this year. As well, for the second year, they will be teaching all-day kindergarten classes.

But they also see the increasing numbers and the demand for more space. Dougherty says with most of the kids she teaches having gone to pre-school, there has also been a huge change in students’ abilities as they enter school since full-day kindergarten was introduced across the district last year. “(Pre-school) seems to set them up very well,” she says.

At schools like Chute Lake, where demand has outstripped availability of space, some students have had to go to nearby Anne McClymont Elementary, notes principal Bruce McKay.

Last year, with the three kindergarten classes full at the start of the year, between 10 and 15 students had to go to neighbouring Anne McClymont Elementary.

But, with the school’s policy of offering any transferred student the first opportunity to return the following year (or the same year if space becomes available), McKay said most of those kids will return this year.

This year, there will be 66 kindergarten kids at Chute Lake and more than 70 Grade 1 students.

Next year, McKay expects there will be less room for incoming kindergarten students and the number will likely drop to between 55 and 60.

One of the factors in the growing number of kindergarten students in the district is development.

With young families attracted to areas where housing is going in, there are pockets around the district benefiting from that development. And for some families, close proximity to schools is a factor when choosing where to live.

McKay said he is finding more parents contacting his school in advance to check on future enrolment availability. As is the case each year, individual schools will not know exactly how many students they will have until head counts are done during the first week of the new school term.

But at schools like Chute Lake, West Kelowna’s Shannon Lake and Rose Valley, Black Mountain and Peter Greer in Lake Country, there is no room to maneuver when trying to squeeze more kindergarten students in.

For example at Shannon Lake Elementary, despite the addition of a new eight-classroom wing last year, in part to accommodate the arrival of full-day kindergarten, portable classrooms have already had to be re-opened.

The school district is hoping its planned new Marjok Elementary, planned for the Horizon Drive area of West Kelowna below West Kelowna Estates will help alleviate crowding at both the Shannon Lake and Rose Valley schools, said Paul.

Meanwhile, the “jigsaw” that is the art of fitting all the kids in who need to go to school here continues.

•••

But for many young students like MacKenzie Zimmermann, the fact her first day of school is about to arrive overshadows issues like the growing number of kids entering kindergarten, if she is even aware of it at all. She is just excited about starting school.

Mackenzie lives in the Black Mountain area, but will go to school at Peter Greer Elementary in Lake Country because she is enrolled in the French immersion program there. Her mom also happens to be a teacher at that school.

Nikki Zimmermann said she is well aware of the growing number of kids entering the school system.

After deciding to enrol her daughter in French immersion, she had to wait to see if there would be room at the school for Mackenzie because she was not a resident of the school’s catchment area. She was lucky. She got in.

So, while the adults plan, the kids gear up to either head back to school or go for the first time.

Either way, it appears this year will be a learning experience for all.

 

 

awaters@kelownacapnews.com

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