Edmonton·In Depth

Edmonton schools are facing a space crunch as student numbers continue to grow

Edmonton Catholic Schools estimates 38 per cent of its buildings are at or over capacity. The Edmonton public division, which has more than double the number of schools, says 18 per cent of them are full.

Edmonton public estimates it will be out of high school space by 2027

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With nearly 1,100 students enrolled in Edmonton's Dr. Margaret-Ann Armour school, access to the gymnasiums is limited. Grade 4 students take an activity break in their crowded modular classroom on Dec. 6, 2023. (Janet French/CBC)

It's with some satisfaction that Jody Lundell watches the lines of students flowing in and out of classrooms at Dr. Margaret-Ann Armour school in the city's southwest.

The principal of the Ambleside-area K-9 school since it opened in 2016, Lundell spends weeks planning how to move nearly 1,100 students around a space designed for 922 without conflict or chaos.

"It is definitely a giant Tetris, or Sudoku, as I like to call it," she says, as an elementary class walks down a hallway, toting library books to the learning commons one December morning.

Recesses at the school are staggered into four phases. When she's not leading children through songs on the xylophone in the music room, one teacher takes French lessons on a cart and hops between classrooms.

Grade 8 science students make their way past a rack for growing herbs to crowd around tables in the centre of a kitchen designed for foods class.

Preteens dip into yoga poses in an office that once held teaching supplies. Upstairs, eighth-graders in a social studies class are packed into the art room between carts full of markers, pencils and scissors.

At 117 per cent capacity, Dr. Margaret-Ann Armour is one of Edmonton Public Schools' most overstuffed buildings.

But across the city and in some of its growing bedroom communities, dozens of school principals are coping with the same challenge – how to give students a good education when there's simply not enough space.

And they're looking with trepidation at what's to come.

This school year, Edmonton Catholic Schools estimates 38 per cent of its 92 buildings are at or over capacity. The Edmonton public division, which has 213 schools, says 18 per cent of them are full.

The problem is particularly pressing in high schools citywide, and in suburban areas like Ambleside, where new neighbourhoods proliferate.

Edmonton public estimates it will be out of high school space by 2027, even with the new Elder Dr. Frances Whiskeyjack high school slated to open this fall in the Meadows.

John Fiacco, superintendent of educational planning for Edmonton Catholic Schools, says all but one of that division's high schools are well over capacity now. Space for Grade 10-12 students will be 103 per cent used by 2026, he said.

That's even with two new high schools under construction for nearly 2,700 more students – Father Michael McCaffery High School in Heritage Valley, and Blessed Carlo Acutis High School in Castle Downs.

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Grade 8 students at Dr. Margaret-Ann Armour school have social studies class in the art room. For the 2023-24 school year, the K-9 school in Edmonton's Ambleside neighbourhood has about 180 more students enrolled than the building was constructed to accommodate. (Janet French/CBC)

The two boards are asking the Alberta government for more than $580 million combined next year to add nearly 11,000 student spaces. And those are only their most pressing requests.

The last three provincial budgets included between $600 and $700 million per year for school construction and renovation, including money for projects that were already underway.

In a December interview, Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides said his government is aware of the pressure in-migration is putting on provincial services, such as education, and said they are prepared for growth.

"We're seeing population levels and enrolment levels that we haven't seen in decades," Nicolaides said. "This is putting some serious pressure on our school divisions. I would say, we see it. We're working toward addressing it."

Together, the two Edmonton-based divisions have 20 per cent of Alberta's student population.

Francophone school boards, bedroom communities like St. Albert and Beaumont, and Calgary-area school divisions have their own population booms, cramped classrooms and urgent school construction needs.

"We are growing fast and furious," Edmonton public school board chair Julie Kusiek said in a December interview. "We need new schools to be built fast and furious."

Although both divisions have coped with rising enrolment during the past decade, the pace of growth is accelerating. Edmonton Catholic Schools added 4,500 new students in the past two years. Edmonton public welcomed 10,000.

"We don't see it stopping," Fiacco said. "There's no indication from what we're using in our metrics to show that there's going to be a dip in the curve or a flattening of the line."

Less populous, but rapidly growing school boards, such as Greater North Central Francophone schools, have even less flexibility to accommodate the rush of students in its 20 schools. Its student population has grown nearly 68 per cent in the last decade.

While staff and students await construction of new schools, Sherwood Park's École Claudette-et-Denis-Tardif is a collection of modular classrooms, with no gymnasium, and library books stacked in the hallway, says spokesperson Laura Devaney. Junior high students attend class in a nearby office building.

The division's Beaumont school, École Quatre-Saisons, consists of a group of houses and a strip mall adapted into classrooms.

People sitting on a bench.
Parents Mandy and Danny Thepsouvanh had to wait to find out whether daughters Franky (left) and Charley (right) would be able to attend kindergarten at their local school, Dr. Margaret-Ann Armour. (Submitted by Mandy Thepsouvanh)

Devaney said these learning conditions aren't equivalent to what Anglophone students experience, and hamper francophone families from choosing their system.

The francophone board has 26 projects on its wish list, costing nearly $400 million.

The crunch goes beyond physical discomfort and inconvenience. Increasingly, jammed buildings limit student access to specialized programs, leave teachers overwhelmed by larger and more complex classes, and leave high schoolers turning to distance education to get required credits.

Losing the lottery

When it opened to students in 2016, Dr. Margaret-Ann Armour had around 500 children enrolled.

Within four years, it was using Edmonton Public Schools' "lottery system," meaning that even students who live within the school's attendance boundaries aren't guaranteed admission. Seven division schools are now in lottery mode.

Mandy Thepsouvanh's family lives close enough to hear the school bells ring. So it was disappointing, and worrisome, she said, when her daughter Charlie initially lost that lottery. The school division would bus the kindergartener to another school a 20-minute drive away.

Within a couple of months, the school called to say it had room for Charlie after all – a "huge relief," she says.

But the school still had to turn 35 local students away that year.

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Dr. Margaret-Ann Armour School principal Jody Lundell spends several weeks each summer planning every transition between classes to keep nearly 1,100 students safe in a building designed for 922 pupils in southwest Edmonton. (Dave Bajer/CBC)

Space shortages slap additional costs on school divisions. They spend hundreds of thousands of dollars busing students to designated schools outside of their neighbourhoods.

Now in the fourth year of enrolment restrictions, principal Lundell is trying every trick she can muster to make space for neighbourhood kids.

There are 20 modular classrooms attached to the school, which is the maximum it can take.

Modular classrooms are smaller than permanent ones. A class of 31 Grade 4 students is packed tightly among their desks while they take an activity break of jumping jacks and running on the spot.

There are 20 coat hooks outside each modular classroom. Staff bought tubs for some students to stash their snow pants and lunch kits.

Portable hand washing stations dot the hallways because the rooms don't have sinks.

Oversubscribed schools must often evict community groups from the buildings, including daycares and before- and after-school programs that working parents and guardians rely upon.

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Parents, local politicians and members of the public meet at the Terwillegar Recreation Centre on Jan. 29, 2024, to learn about the Edmonton Public Schools' space shortage challenges. (Janet French/CBC)

Dr. Margaret-Ann Armour keeps its YMCA child care in the hallway, by tucking toys and chairs into a corner behind rolling dividers while class is in session.

Weighing on Lundell's mind is a lack of indoor space to bring the whole school together at once.

"It's something that I do miss," she said.

There were two Remembrance Day ceremonies in the fall. And there's no room to invite parents.

Holiday concerts are spread over several evenings.

Charlie Thepsouvanh is now in Grade 3, and her little sister is in kindergarten. Her mom says Charlie needs more individual help to learn some concepts, and she wonders how readily available that help is in a large class.

"It can be frustrating, but it's kind of the price you pay for being out here in the suburbs," Thepsouvanh said.

Taking the pressure off

This year, Edmonton Catholic Schools was left with no ideal options for three unmanageably packed schools.

As of September 2024, there will be no ninth graders at Monsignor Fee Otterson or St. Thomas Aquinas elementary-junior high schools in Heritage Valley. The new Father Michael McCaffery High School will instead open as a Grade 9 to 11 school.

Here’s why most Edmonton high schools will be full by 2027

2 months ago
Duration 3:42
Educators and officials are scrambling to deal with overcrowded schools, with many already operating beyond their capacity. Meanwhile, the province’s population continues to grow, compounding an already dire need - particularly in the city’s high schools.

In McConachie, in the city's northeast, Christ the King school won't take any kindergarteners next year, busing them about eight kilometres to Anne Fitzgerald school instead.

ECSD superintendent Fiacco said displacing students is a last resort. But he says schools can't keep squishing classes into windowless staff rooms while teachers eat lunch in their cars.

"The operations of the school are being affected," he said. "Instruction's being affected. Students are being taught in spaces not designed to be taught in. So we have to do something."

Jasmine Seivright's children are in Grades 5 and 8 at Christ the King. Her kids tell her they struggle to get to their lockers with more than 1,200 students shoehorned into a space designed for 945.

She said music and art rooms are now used for core subject classes.

Her daughter's junior high band can't practice together – they don't fit in the room.

Christ the King's library is home to the kindergarteners, the books divided between other classrooms now, parents said.

Seivright said there are also traffic concerns as a crush of drivers arrive to drop off and pick up students. 

She says it's time to look at alternative scheduling, such as year-round schooling, to give students better access to options and programs.

"I don't want my children's futures to be limited by a lack of education, and that's really what we're facing here now in Edmonton," she said.

Fellow Christ the King parent Shannan Frey says the overcrowding shows a failure of the provincial government to prepare for the population growth it actively encouraged – including with last year's "Alberta is Calling" campaign.

"How could you not know that there's going to be this demand, when those schools were already over capacity several years ago?" Frey said.

With some schools struggling to keep up with the local demand for regular programming, school divisions say their ability to offer alternatives like French immersion and other language and cultural programs, academic challenge or advanced placement are rapidly dwindling.

"We've been proud to be a division of open boundaries, which is a level of choice that many school divisions would love to be able to do," said Roland Labbe, director of infrastructure planning at Edmonton Public Schools. 

"We're grappling with the reality that that is starting to erode now."

Bursting with teens

It's the urgent need for high schools that keep planners like Labbe awake at night.

Edmonton's newest high school, Dr. Anne Anderson, opened in Heritage Valley in 2021. Labbe said it already needs an expansion to add room for 600 students.

Labbe estimates the division needs between four and five new high schools in the next decade to prepare for the demographic tsunami of teenagers thundering in.

In the meantime, the incoming classes can expect longer travel times to high schools that are the least full, he said.

Parents like Alyssa Lewis say high school crowding is already a problem. Five of Lewis' six children are enrolled in public schools, including two at Strathcona high school and Grade 7 twins at Vernon Barford junior high.

Class sizes continue to rise, and Lewis worries about the safety of high student-teacher ratios in classes like construction, where teens are using power tools.

In her daughter's Grade 11 physics class, there are 38 students and 37 desks, she said. The school is at 111 per cent capacity.

"The physics teacher just jokingly hopes that someone is absent every class so that everyone has a chair, and if not, he has someone sit behind his desk because that's the only other option," she said.

Teachers overloaded with several huge classes don't have the time after school to see every student looking for help, she said. Her teens are having trouble getting into options they want on their transcript for post-secondary education.

Although the Alberta government stopped requiring schools to collect class-size data in 2019, Edmonton public continued producing similar reports to illustrate the effects of education funding lagging inflation and student population growth.

Edmonton public's most recent report shows 50 per cent of all high school classes have 31 students or more enrolled. Four years ago, it was 42 per cent.

Average class sizes in core academic subjects — math, language arts, sciences and social studies — are larger than overall class sizes, and the numbers are trending up.

The largest average class sizes this year are at Strathcona, M. E. LaZerte and Lilian Osborne — all high schools that are at or beyond 100 per cent capacity.

Lewis calls the shortage of space "terrifying." She worries that her twins may be split up if they can't get into the same high school.

"Everyone's working as hard as they can, and it's just a never-ending battle that's always going to be lose-lose if we keep going the way we're going," she said.

Lewis was one of about 35 people who went to a late-January community meeting in Terwillegar organized by families also troubled by the space crunch.

The Edmonton Public School Advocacy Network is trying to motivate parents to prod their MLAs to prioritize construction and modernization of schools to keep up with surging demand. The volunteers have been using social media posts to raise awareness of the problems.

One of the network's founders, Nancy Hunt, said Strathcona classes are so full, an academic adviser suggested her 15-year-old daughter enrol in night classes downtown to pick up a required science credit.

"How can we help my student to have a great experience in her day so that she doesn't have lots of crowds to walk through between classes?" Hunt said.

"So there's actually time to go to the bathroom, because there isn't such a long lineup. So that she has time to ask a teacher a question. So she actually gets a locker."

All eyes on budget day

After appointing Nicolaides as education minister in July 2023, Premier Danielle Smith instructed him in a mandate letter to "significantly increase the number of schools in the communities of greatest need."

Smith's letter also asks him to expand off-campus learning opportunities and school partnerships with post-secondary institutions.

Parents and school authorities are anxious to see the province's commitment to new school construction and modernization in the 2024-25 budget, slated to be unveiled Feb. 29.

But school boards' request lists show the demands far exceed recent spending by United Conservative Party governments.

The immediate, one-year construction needs of Alberta's four largest school boards total $1 billion. There are 59 other Alberta school boards, and hundreds of independent and charter schools, that have needs, too.

This year's provincial investment in school renewal was $631 million, and that includes funding for projects announced over several budget years.

At the January parent meeting in Terwillegar, Edmonton public board chair Kusiek said it would take several years of concerted provincial spending to catch up.

Parent and education advocate Nancy Kirkpatrick says with a surplus forecast in this year's budget, and Alberta's strong economy, the public should put pressure on the province.

Said Kirkpatrick: "I want everybody's kids in the province to succeed."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Janet French

Provincial affairs reporter

Janet French covers the Alberta Legislature for CBC Edmonton. She previously spent 15 years working at newspapers, including the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca.

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