Plans for Whitehorse high school students in the fall are coming under fire from parents, students, alumni and others.
On July 9, Education Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee announced the plans for the territory’s schools this fall as efforts are made to allow for distancing and other measures to address COVID-19 while also ensuring in-class learning will happen.
All Kindergarten to Grade 9 students in the territory will return to full-time classes in school, while Grade 10 to 12 students in Whitehorse will move to a half-day in-class schedule. Grades 10 to 12 in the communities will attend classes full time.
The changes in Whitehorse will also see students enrolled in experiential learning programs at the Wood Street Centre moved to F.H. Collins Secondary School or Porter Creek Secondary School depending on their program and the 135 Grade 8 students at F.H. Collins moved to the Wood Street Centre.
McPhee stressed the changes are being made in an effort to ensure health and safety while also allowing all to attend class, but the move is being criticized by many parents, students and alumni who argue consultation should have happened before the plans were finalized and there are other options that should have been considered.
“I’m hopeful the plan will change,” NDP Leader Kate White said in a July 14 interview.
A former student in the Music, Arts and Drama experiential program now offered out of the Wood Street Centre, White argued the experiential model does not work well in a conventional school setting.
“PC functions in a different way (than the Wood Street Centre),” she said.
When she was a student in MAD, it was run out of the Yukon Arts Centre. There, she was able to spend days delving into various aspects of theatre such as set design without interruption. It had the space and the equipment in place to allow students to do that and the program operates in a way to allow that focus while also delivering meeting curriculum.
The Wood Street Centre has a black box theatre, equipment in place and flexibility in the program. It doesn’t make sense to move it, even on a temporary basis, White said.
White wonders why other alternatives weren’t looked at that would help ensure all students could attend full day classes and allow experiential programs to stay where they are without moving equipment.
There may have been opportunity for the sports program offered out of F.H. Collins to move to the Canada Games Centre, for example, which would open up some space at that school for Grade 8 students and offer a location suited to the sports program.
Another model could have Grades 8 and 9 at one school, Grades 10 to 12 in another, White suggested.
Bob Sharp, who started the experiential science program now offered at Wood Street, echoed the need to consider other alternatives, wondering in a July 15 interview why the Grade 8 classes at F.H. Collins weren’t moved to Porter Creek instead of Wood Street students being moved to the other high schools.
He pointed out that with PCSS operating on a multi-class schedule similar to that of F.H. Collins, it would make more sense to move the Grade 8 F.H. Collins class there than having the Wood Street programs moved.
“While students in these experiential programs come from all over the city, their contact bubble is limited to those in their class,” he pointed out in an open letter to McPhee. “Placing these programs in (PCSS) with bells that ring at period changes and students move from class to class, contacting many other students, expands their contact bubble significantly and interrupts their educational activities. There is a better way.”
Sharp knows about that disruption from his own experience. When the experiential science program started, it was run out of F.H. Collins.
“It was not a good fit,” he said, recalling the disruptions that came for those in the experiential program as bells rang and other students moved from class to class in the more traditional school schedule.
“I don’t think they thought this through,” he said of education officials who decided on the move.
The experiential science program later moved from F.H. Collins to a wood shop at Christ the King High (now Christ the King Elementary School) before eventually finding its home at the Wood Street Centre, a place that has allowed a dedicated space and room for experiential learning.
Experiential learning programs have been highly successful, Sharp said, highlighting high attendance rates, engagement and a 100 per cent graduation rate with many going on to post-secondary school and successful careers.
“Wouldn’t it make more sense to move the Grade 8 students bound for FHC to the space in Porter Creek Secondary and leave Wood Street as is, allowing for more students to take part in these engaging programs,” he stated in his letter to McPhee. “This only disrupts one group that was to face relocation challenges.”
Yukon Party Leader Currie Dixon also weighed in on the plans, calling on the Liberal government for consultation, noting the Yukon Party “was flooded” with emails and concerns shortly after the government announced the school plan.
“Parents, teachers, and students are all being left out of what could be the most critical decisions around our children’s education that will ever be made,” he said in a July 14 statement.
At least two social media groups have been created over the issue — Yukoners Concerned About Grades 10-12 has 188 members as of July 17, while Stop the MAD Program Move has 356.
In both, members have criticized the changes and lack of consultation, with some putting forward alternative suggestions.
Among them are a number of other spaces identified where classes could be held and highlighting issues with the plans.
As one member put it about the half-day model: “To use this model effectively the learner will need to be already self-motivated and independent and while that is a worthy goal for all learners, in reality, it works well for those who are already doing that.
“It will not serve the majority of learners who need external motivation at times and some intense one-on-one instruction and help to set learning goals.
“I understand that there are challenges to the system during COVID. However, I would like to see the solution linked to educational research on learning and perhaps this is a time when we should be looking at models used in other districts and countries who face this same dilemma.”
Yukon Party MLA Scott Kent also forwarded a letter to McPhee relaying the several messages he’s received from parents and students.
Questioned about what was considered ahead of the decision to move programs around, education spokesperson Maria Paré said a variety of options were looked at and it was through discussions with principals responsible for F.H. Collins, Porter Creek and the Wood Street Centre the decision was made to send Grade 8 students from F.H. Collins to the Wood Street Centre.
“Moving the Grade 8 classes from F.H. Collins to the Wood Street Centre, a central location close to F.H. Collins, will minimize the disruption for these 135 students who are starting their pivotal transition to high-school,” she stated in an email. “We will work with F.H. Collins Secondary staff to support all Grade 8 families to adapt to these changes.”
Plans are underway for the relocation of the experiential programs, she said, and that includes moving equipment and supplies so the programs can continue to run properly.
“The health and safety of staff and students is our top priority,” Paré said.
“Our goal is to return as many students as possible to classes in Yukon schools while following all health and safety guidelines.”
Education officials will continue working with staff at the three schools, she said.
Contact Stephanie Waddell at firstname.lastname@example.org