Locals weigh in on new Provincial rural education strategy

A video screen was placed at the front of the room, with the communities of McBride, Valemount, Mackenzie and Prince George taking part.

by EVAN MATTHEWS

The Province is engaging the public to redefine its rural education strategy, and Robson Valley residents say rural education is understaffed and underfunded.

The Ministry of Education and School District 57, hosted an open house on Feb. 1 seeking public input on a new rural education strategy.

While the open house was in Prince George, the rural communities of Valemount, McBride and Mackenzie were included at the open house via video conferencing.

The Ministry is seeking public engagement until Mar. 15 via an online document to explore rural school funding and educational practices.

The document, called the Draft Discussion Paper, has garnered over 200 responses, so far.

Conversation opened with the Ministry asking residents to define their idea of rural schools, which provoked many in attendance to get right to the point.

“If this is about definitions it’s a waste of time. We’ve done this before. It’s about funding,” — Tim Nusse, parent of five

“McBride is defined as remote, not rural. But does the definition matter if there is no funding?” Asked Wes Keim, a teacher in McBride with two children of his own.

A computer tech from Valemount Secondary School and parent of two, Kiba Dempsey, agreed, saying the definition of rural is an obvious one, as rural kids have little to no option when it comes to choosing a school.

Tim Nusse, who raised five children in Valemount and has coached the Secondary School’s girls’ basketball program for 23 years, also agreed.

“If this is about definitions it’s a waste of time,” said Nusse. “We’ve done this before. It’s about funding.”

While funding was atop the night’s discussion, School District 57 Chairperson, Tim Bennett, took the time to credit the valley’s educators for working under the current funding model.

“Our staff is doing a fantastic job in rural schools and I don’t want that point to be lost,” said Bennett.

“We know a teacher in a rural secondary school can have to prepare for up to nine curriculums (or more),” he said.

But educators weighed in, too, saying underfunding prevents most teachers from living up to their potential, meaning students suffer, confirming residents’ concerns that the funding model needs to change.

“Counseling doesn’t exist in our schools, and our kids deserve better,” said Principal of McBride Secondary, Derrick Shaw.

A recurring positive during the conversation, however, was the notion

Though the open house was a one way of engaging the Robson Valley’s rural communities, the Ministry is encouraging residents
to add thoughts to the Draft Discussion Paper — a living
document — on the https://engage.gov.bc.ca/ruraleducation/ website until Mar. 15. / EVAN MATTHEWS

that rural education provides a deeper connection between students and teachers. The teachers get to learn who the students are as people and about their family situations, according to multiple parents in
attendance.

But as the Valemount Secondary School principal pointed out, knowing the community better means seeing kids who need extra support.

“Providing higher level of care for at-risk kids can be difficult,” said Dan Kenkel. “We see intergenerational effects in these situations.”

In seeking the public’s input, the Ministry also set out to gain a better understanding of the role schools and educational programs play in rural communities, and there was no denying the valley’s pride in its schools.

In places like Valemount and McBride, the schools are often used for arts and theatre, sporting events, craft fairs, etc. Hosting activities means clearing them with the school district.

“The school is a community centre, and it could benefit even more from community involvement,” said Jean Ann Berkenpas, a teacher in Valemount.

“Giving the schools more autonomy to do that would be a good thing,” she said.

Though the open house was a one way of engaging the Robson Valley’s rural communities, the Ministry is encouraging residents to add thoughts to the Draft Discussion Paper on the https://engage.gov.bc.ca/ruraleducation/ website until Mar. 15.

All feedback received will help government shape a final report on an integrated rural education strategy, according to the Ministry, including recommendations for the future.