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Back to school across the Central Okanagan

Schools are back in session starting Tuesday, Sept. 1
A empty teacher’s desk is seen at the front of a empty classroom. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Like a machine clicking back into operation after being dormant for two months, the Central Okanagan schools opened their doors to students and staff for the start of the 2023-24 school term.

As the fifth largest school district in the province, some 24,000 students and more than 1,300 teachers will report back to the school district’s 46 schools on Tuesday, Sept. 5.

The return to class may not be smooth for every student, but the school district is prepared to provide support wherever needed to make the transition to another year as smooth as possible.

In recent years, Central Okanagan school reopening has been overshadowed by emergency response events, from floods to fires to COVID-19, and this year is no different with the Grouse Complex wildfires which are still burning, and some families still on evacuation order from their homes.

But still, optimism abounds in the hallways of Central Okanagan schools, as students get a fresh start at a new grade, teachers are anxious to get back to work after the summer break, buoyed by the positive vibes of recording a 96 per cent graduation rate last year and 92 per cent five-year rate, both above the provincial average.

School reopening

Hugh Alexander, principal of Rutland Senior Secondary, says efforts began in mid-August to begin planning and preparing for another school year, the overriding objective to set up students and staff for success, another year of learning and growth.

“With school essentially quiet in the summer, we want to see everyone moving in the same direction when school starts up,” said Alexander.

“There is a lot of energy in the building when everyone is back so we want that energy to flow in the right direction…for our staff to be settled and feel supported, for our students to feel in a good spot.”

Alexander said the scenario for RSS is similar to other schools across the district – plenty of moving parts coming together at once from students dealing with class timetables, to teachers working in new positions, students transferring into RSS from other local schools or moved here from other communities, assessing new immigrant students and finding support for those less proficient in English.

Already, RSS held a peer-student-led orientation session for students coming into Grade 9 last Wednesday, he said, to help them get acclimated to their new surroundings.

Alexander said a lot of research has been done about students making transitions from one level of school to another, from elementary to middle to senior secondary, and how to reduce the stress and anxiety students could possibly face.

He said one such preparation measure is offering more exposure to incoming students before their arrival, field trips to the school before their arrival, a peer group mentor support initiative and events like the orientation held last week.

“We feel the less angst there is with the more exposure students get to the school they are moving up to,” Alexander said.

“We are trying to create a soft landing for newly arriving students, to give them the confidence that I can do this and I can be successful here.”

Alexander said some teachers will be in their classrooms over the Labour Day weekend working on final preparations for their classrooms prior to students arriving on Tuesday.

Administrative leadership

The anticipation of enrolment growth and dealing with the aftermath of an emergency situation has become the norm for the Okanagan Public Schools administrative staff in recent years.

“This is my ninth startup with this school district and it seems like there has always been something going on in the past, and this year is no different,” said Kevin Kaardal, Central Okanagan Public Schools superintendent/CEO.

“The wildfires put pressure on us from the perspective of school readiness and operation, but our staff pull out all the stops to be ready.”

This year, the school district will face the impact on families from the Grouse Complex wildfires, where some families are still on evacuation order, some of lost their homes, and students return to class carrying the stress of a public emergency ordeal.

Two West Kelowna schools, Rose Valley and Mar Jok Elementary, were in evacuation order zones but both will be opening their doors for classes Tuesday.

“We have dealt with this so much we have gotten quite good at it. Wildfires, floods, COVID are all different situations and require different responses,” he said.

Enrolment growth comes in many forms – people wanting to relocate to Central Okanagan for its vibrant economy and quality of lifestyle, others displaced by wildfires in other communities moving here to relocate either permanently or temporarily, and immigrants moving here to start a new life.

“We support everywhere we can…that is the work,” Kaardal said.

“To make sure our students feel safe and have dignity…to make sure our school system allows them to thrive and provide them a transition into post-secondary school, or an apprenticeship, or other options they choose to engage in that gives them dignity in their lives, to thrive and have a great life in one of the to their lives in one of the greatest countries in the world.”

Teachers back in class

Like students, some teachers face the start of a new school term with the after-effects of the Grouse Complex wildfires in front of mind.

Some teachers have lost their homes, others are still on evacuation order, and some living further south are trapped by the rock avalanche that has detoured Highway 97 traffic between Peachland and Penticton.

For Susan Bauhart, executive director of the Central Okanagan Teachers Association, it becomes easy under those circumstances to dwell on the negative.

“But I would say overall teachers are excited to be back as much as can be expected under the circumstances,” she said.

Already, teachers participated in a three-day professional development conference hosted by George Elliot Secondary in Lake Country.

While there are specific workshops and keynote speakers, Bauhart says the biggest benefit may be colleagues from across the school district coming together and being able to touch base on challenges each is facing.

“It helps strike a sense of normalcy that despite all the upheavals going on, things are going ahead as normal as we can make them,” said Bauhart, who herself was evacuated from her Lake Country home due to the Clarke Creek wildfire.

Heading into a new school year, Bauhart says two issues of concern to teachers continue to be violence in schools and classroom workload exacerbated by teaching assistant job vacancies yet to be filled to help students with special needs in the classroom.

“It’s not about funding, it’s about finding the people who can fill those jobs. In the absence of that, it takes its toll on teachers who have to absorb that extra workload,” she said.

Parent involvement

The past few weeks have been filled with unprecedented challenges, as our community continues to grapple with the impacts of forest fires, evacuations, and the profound loss of homes and belongings, says the president of the Central Okanagan Parent Advisory Council.

Nicola Baker says it’s during times like these that our strength and resilience as a community truly shine through.

Schools are more than just places of learning – they are close-knit communities that provide support and positivity for our students, staff, and their families during difficult times such as these, she noted.

Baker said school PACs contribute significantly to fostering and maintaining these connected communities.

Baker shared some of the benefits of getting involved with your child’s school community and the parent advisory council this year:

1. Be a role model for your child: By showing up as a parent volunteer — even for an hour or two a month — you model powerful values such as community service, democratic participation, and civic duty. Your children get to see you at your best…building a stronger community for them.

2. Have a seat at the table: Whether you are an elected member or a participating parent, you get a vote and can give voice to school budgets, decisions, and programs that directly impact your children. Particularly in these trying times, being part of the PAC means having awareness and a voice in decisions that directly affect your children’s well-being.

3. Exercise your passion: Whether it’s fundraising to build an outdoor learning centre, launching a new sports academy, or in moments like these, supporting emergency relief efforts and establishing resources for students and families who have been displaced, the possibilities are endless to contribute to projects that will enhance your school community and your child’s educational experience.

4. Stay in the know: When you participate in your PAC, you’re at the front end of decisions, ideas, and events coming from the school principal. Advanced knowledge gives you the opportunity to influence the direction of decisions that might impact your children.

5. Support those who support your children: We are so fortunate in the Okanagan to have teachers, principals, support workers, and administrative staff all working together to provide a world-class public education experience. Parents who support and recognize staff contribute to students’ positive educational experiences and outcomes.

“It’s never too late to join your school PAC. Whether it’s mid-year or even in your child’s last year of school, PACs are a welcoming place that will embrace your unique talents,” said Baker.

“Joining your PAC is straightforward — contact your current PAC leadership or reach out to your school principal via email to express your interest.

“Together, as engaged parents, we can provide much-needed support and stability to our community.”

Barry Gerding

About the Author: Barry Gerding

Senior regional reporter for Black Press Media in the Okanagan. I have been a journalist in the B.C. community newspaper field for 37 years...
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