No start date in sight for new FH Collins

Christie Whitley, assistant deputy minister of education, taught for 32 years, so she is accustomed to putting unruly kids in their place.

Christie Whitley, assistant deputy minister of education, taught for 32 years, so she is accustomed to putting unruly kids in their place.

Unruly parents, as well.

So when parents on the advisory council of FH Collins asked Whitley some straightforward questions about the department’s plans to replace the aging school with a new one, they didn’t stand much of a chance.

Whitley didn’t answer their questions on Wednesday evening. But she did lecture them on respect.

“We have to be really respectful of capacity issues,” she said. “I’m not about to burn out all my staff. We have a lot of things to do.”

“It’s not realistic. And we need to be respectful of one another when it comes to timelines.”

Her remarks were prompted by questions posed by Keith Halliday. He wanted to know if a new school would be built before his 12-year-old son graduates.

But by the meeting’s end, Halliday, who himself graduated from FH Collins in 1985, had been taught a new lesson: simple questions rarely receive simple answers — at least, this holds when the questions are put to senior Education Department staff about the project.

“They couldn’t even say a target date for putting a new school in place,” Halliday said afterwards.

He figures a new school could open by 2012, if the territory got moving. But there’s little indication of this happening.

The replacement of FH Collins has been a long time coming. It is Whitehorse’s oldest school. But, with every step forward made by the department, the goal seems to move further away.

There is always another report to be done, a new committee to be struck.

It has taken a long time to get this far.

Before Patrick Rouble, the education minister, announced in late October his plans to replace FH Collins, his department spent two years puzzling over whether to renovate or rebuild the school.

This question was apparently too difficult for department staff to answer themselves. So they hired consultants.

One report recommended to hire more consultants to produce yet another report. So the department did that.

Two years and $280,000 whizzed by.

In the end, the decision to rebuild the school was based on old engineering reports that predate either time-consuming studys. The engineering work found the school is five years older than its intended life.

But parents found fresh optimism in Rouble’s announcement that a new school would be built. Perhaps work on the project would pick up speed.

No such luck.

They will have to wait until at least March of 2009 for details, said Whitley. That’s when the department plans to hold a big meeting on education reform.

It’s unclear what has been done since the last report was received in late October.

The Education Department still has no timeline to build the new school.

“We won’t know until we put the strategic plan in place to see if we have gaps,” said Whitley.

When will that be in place?

“I’m not going to make a commitment one way or another,” she said.

Nor would Whitley say when a design committee would be struck.

Council members were unimpressed.

“The feedback from this parent is it needs to move faster,” said Halliday.

“Me too,” said Roberta Kotylak.

“You didn’t tell us anything we didn’t know,” said Barbara Meister.

But Whitley was not fazed. First she talked to them about respect.

She calmed the crowd by talking about the differences between programming and methodology, of authentic learning strategies and learning outcomes.

Soon, most eyes had glazed over.

Talk drifted back to the latest report, One Vision, Multiple Pathways, produced by Winnipeg-based Proactive Information Services for about $200,000.

The study is, among other things, supposed to identify what facilities the new school should contain. Pity the poor architect who will be handed it.

The new school should be both “warm” and “cool,” “cozy” and “breezy,” as well as “healthy, aromatic, textured” and “visually pleasing,” states the report.

The suggestions on school design don’t get much more specific than that, other than to say the school needs a bigger shop and must not be built as a “traditional school box.”

The report does offer more substance on the matter of school programs, which is its focus. But its findings will not surprise most parents and teachers.

Struggling kids need more one-on-one help. Aboriginal students disproportionately drop out. Children in rural communities find themselves academically behind their peers when they enter school in Whitehorse.

The solutions to these problems likely require a lot more money being spent on school staff. This will be expensive. Is the department prepared to spend more money?

Again, Whitley offered no answer.

But she did tell council members that few subjects are as complex as education.

“This is not rocket science. Teaching is much more complicated than rocket science.”

So, apparently, is building a new school.

Contact John Thompson at

 johnt@yukon-news.com.

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