A substitute teacher instructs students in one of the four small spaces used for learning at Golden Horn Elementary School in Whitehorse on Nov. 5. (Julien Gignac/Yukon News)

Small rooms and a hallway space used to accommodate students at Golden Horn Elementary School

The News was granted a tour of the school this week

Four small rooms and a hallway space are used for learning groups at Golden Horn Elementary School – two of those rooms can fit upwards of eight students.

The Department of Education permitted a News reporter to take a tour of the building on Nov. 5 after a series of articles were published about capacity issues, waitlists and an instance of one student having to be homeschooled because there wasn’t space for him.

The overflow rooms, about a third of a size of regular classrooms at Golden Horn, don’t function as permanent classrooms, but rather as areas in which a few students are taken to brush up on certain assignments, said principal Darcy LeBlanc, who guided the tour.

Golden Horn is at 98 per cent capacity and currently has 246 students, according to a spreadsheet compiled by the department.

LeBlanc said the school only has five spaces available in Grade 1.

That day, a substitute teacher was instructing a group of eight lower-grade students gathered around a circular table in one of the overflow rooms. Though somewhat cramped, it has a window, chalkboard and other supplies necessary for school programs.

The “Reading Recovery Room,” near the main office, is more for one-on-one learning.

The fourth space that’s been used for instruction is a small kitchen, adjacent to the gym.

There were no kids busy learning in the hallways, as Education Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee said last month – at least on Nov. 5, that is.

In one of the school’s wings, near the gym, there are two tables in the hallway. It’s here that the vice-principal, who doubles as a learning assistance teacher, has helped instruct upper grades, LeBlanc said.

At or near-capacity schools in the Whitehorse area have been a reoccurring thread in the legislative assembly this sitting, with the official Opposition grilling the Liberals at times on what it intends to do to remediate the issue in a timely manner.

On Nov. 5, the matter was raised once again.

During question period that day, McPhee said elementary schools are at 79 per cent capacity on average, and, at the end of September this year, there were 700 available spaces.

There are 11 elementary schools in Whitehorse.

There are about 20 students attending Golden Horn Elementary School outside the catchment area, said Maxine White, the department spokesperson, in a written statement.

“Students are typically required to attend school in their attendance area. In exceptional circumstances, the Department of Education may consider allowing a student to attend a school outside the designated attendance area to permit siblings to attend the same school” or to “Respond to a situation that significantly affects the education, health or safety of a student,” she said.

“There must be well-documented evidence that the change is necessary to meet the student’s needs.”

Because of changes to neighbourhoods and demographics, enrolment numbers fluctuate, “widely,” McPhee said.

“Our job is to adapt in a way that makes sense for all of our schools in Whitehorse,” she said.

“I can tell you that this department actually does have a plan, and they are working very diligently with respect to working with every school community to make sure — and by school community, I mean school councils, administrators of schools and school families — that the planning that hasn’t been done for over 20 years to look at the future pressures of enrolment in Whitehorse schools is, in fact, being done.”

McPhee referred to “short-term, mid-term, and long-term” plans to fix capacity issues.

After question period, a News reporter asked her to elaborate on what those plans entail, specifically.

“Some of the short-term options might be to deal with repurposing some space, reimagining some space. One of the examples of that has been to have computer equipment, IT equipment, for instance, to be on carts that move around, instead of having a separate school classroom,” she said.

Mid-term solutions could involve renovations to current spaces like dividing one classroom into two, McPhee said.

“It might involve portables in some schools,” she added.

The school council is requesting that the department put out a tender by Dec. 31, 2018 to expedite the delivery of portables to the school, Kirsten Hogan, the chairperson, told the News recently.

Oshea Jephson, spokesperson for the Department of Highways and Public works, told the News on Nov. 6 that a tender for one portable — potential two — will be issued in mid-November, expiring about a month later.

Jephson could not specify where the portable, or portables, will go.

“The initial portable is set to be delivered by the end of the fiscal (year),” he said.

Long-term plans, McPhee continued, could involve “new spaces altogether, new builds, that kind of thing.”

In terms of when these plans will come about, she said “we’re in the middle of a budget process for 2019 /2020. In the spring, which I’ve said before, we will have hopefully some of those matters dealt with in the budget process.”

Asked whether she thinks the overflow rooms at Golden Horn are adequate spaces for learning, McPhee said Golden Horn is doing a good job of using the space it has to accommodate students.

“I’ve also been to Golden Horn, and we’re working closely with the administration.”

McPhee noted that she is meeting with the school council later this month.

Two letters sent by the school council about one year ago raise concerns over certain spaces converted to accommodate students, including a boiler room closet.

LeBlanc confirmed that the boiler room closet has been used as a small learning area, as recently as this fall. On Nov. 5, though, it looked like what you would expect of such a space: drab and intended for storage.

“The spaces that are used for one-on-one or small groups they change from year-to-year because our enrolment changes, the needs of students change, our composition at grades and staffing assignments change,” LeBlanc said. “Every year we have to make our space fit what our needs are.”

LeBlanc started at the school last January, he said. Since that time, he said there have been ongoing conversations with the school’s community about meeting Golden Horn’s needs. He said he’s confident its issues will be addressed in due course.

The department is going to bat for the school, he said.

“I get why there needs to be an informed decision, to be fiscally responsible,” LeBlanc said. “Our Department of Education has been coming to the table to talk about it, so, yeah, I’m hopeful we’ll come to a solution that will meet the needs of the school for next year.”

Contact Julien Gignac at julien.gignac@yukon-news.com