By Laura Keil

Some parents are not happy with the class configuration at Valemount Elementary this year.

Two classes will have three grades in them: K-1-2 and 4-5-6. The other classes are split with two grades.

In the school newsletter, Principal Priscilla Davis says they usually start the year with multi-age groupings so the students can get to know all staff and students. But this year, all students will find themselves grouped permanently in classes with a grade below, above, or both.

“This year has been extremely difficult to configure all of our students into the 6 divisions that have been allotted by the school district,” Davis wrote in the newsletter. “Our school has managed to avoid three-way splits for the 15 years that I have been a principal at this school. Unfortunately, this year we have two classrooms that will be three-way splits. We will continue to do our best to support all learners at VES.”

School District No. 57 Superintendent Cindy Heitman says the class configurations are decided at a school level. She says three-grade splits exist in other schools in the district.

“Ten years ago, when the Ministry of Education redesigned the curriculum, it was done in a way that provides curriculum continuums. Very few classes are not combined grades in most schools.”

She says grades are sometimes re-combined for lessons, though the school still needs to stay within class size limits, which are regulated provincially. 

When asked how parents can best support their child in a 3-grade split, Heitman says parent support of learning would look the same if the class was not combined grades. 

Parent Ruby Hogg, whose daughter is in a 6-7 split this year, says she doesn’t have an issue with two-grade splits, but has serious misgivings about three-grade splits.

“One of my biggest concerns is teacher burnout. I’ve seen how much work teachers put in for one grade, let alone two grades, and now here we are at three grades and they have to learn the curriculum for all three grades.”

She says when her daughter was born, the public health nurse stressed to her that she needed to look after herself first in order to give the best care to her daughter.

“That’s as a parent looking after one child. Think of a teacher looking after 30 kids of various ages.”

While she concedes that even in a single grade you won’t have all the same learning bubbles, in a 3-grade split some kids could be nearly four years apart in age. And COVID-19 mandates set some kids behind.

“I can’t attest to anyone else’s learning, but I do know it was a difficult time for everybody; I’m not sure how they will cope in a three-way split.”

Local parent and Parent Advisory Council board member Addy Janum says she’s concerned about the lack of funding for both teachers and aides.

She’s yet to confirm the number of aides in the school this year, but has heard a low number.

“If you have a child who needs a little extra assistance, it could be behavioural, emotional, it could be whatever, it’s a lot easier on the teacher.”

She says if the teacher is alone with 20-some kids, it’s difficult to provide one-on-one support to students that need it.

Janum notes two existing teachers are slated to take leave part way through the year for personal reasons. The school newsletter states the current K-1 teacher is “currently covering” the position. 

Principal Davis is not authorized to speak directly to the media about the reasons for the split classes or the future outlook for the school’s teaching staff. When asked about a teacher shortage in Valemount and the District, Heitman says it continues to be a concern.

“Like many other industries outside of education the recruitment of teachers across British Columbia continues to be of concern. This is especially true for districts in the North such as School District 57,” she says. “Many strategies are being examined locally, regionally and provincially to help mitigate this challenge.”

Heitman says anyone with concerns should contact the Principal.

Some parents have relayed positive or neutral experiences for their children having been in 3-way splits in the past, noting the older children often help out with the younger ones.

The District says Valemount Elementary has a school enrollment of 137 students this year. 

Anyone interested in joining the Parent Advisory Committee can contact Addy Janum or Leaha Johnson.