The future of Our Lady of the Way School in Stratton has been determined—it will remain open.
Northwest Catholic District School Board trustees made the decision at their regular monthly meeting last week after receiving a report from Director of Education Rick Boisvert.
A recommendation to keep the school open was presented and the decision was unanimous.
“Our Lady of the Way School has a long history of providing quality Catholic education to many students and families in the Stratton and surrounding area,” Boisvert noted.
“It remains the lone Catholic school west of Fort Frances in the area served by the board.
“The lengthy travel time to the neighbouring Catholic schools will make continued attendance in Catholic schools difficult for some families served by the board,” he added.
The future of the JK-Grade 8 school has been in jeopardy for the past two years, with enrolment dropping to just 13 students in 2012-13.
An accommodation review process began in January of that year—a procedure that must be followed when considering the closure or consolidation of schools.
While the Accommodation Review Committee recommended in January, 2014 that the school remain open, an analysis by board administration suggested it was “too early to make a decision to close Our Lady of the Way School.”
At a meeting in March, 2014, the board opted to postpone indefinitely a decision on its future.
It also decided administration should provide update reports relative to enrolment at the school three times each year.
Boisvert acknowledged the decline in enrolment, but noted it has been relatively stable—with a small increase—since 2013.
Still, the school is operating well below capacity, with a total of 18 students currently enrolled there.
“It can be anticipated that enrolment growth will be slow, and it is most likely to come from the kindergarten entry level or from new families moving to the area,” Boisvert noted.
He added the building is in decent shape despite the fact not much money has been spent on improvements in recent years due to the uncertainty of its future.
But Boisvert said it’s the opinion of administration that school improvements can be financed well within board means as a result of the Ministry of Education’s investment in capital improvements.
Superintendent of Business Seija Van Haesendonck noted as a result of revised Ministry of Education funding formulas, the school currently is generating an excess of grants beyond the costs to continue operating the school (in the amount of $184,500).
She explained the cost reflects the distance between Our Lady of the Way and other schools within the board, resulting in a “Supported School” designation.
“What they [the ministry] are trying to do is to encourage boards who have many small schools in a concentrated area to consolidate those schools,” Van Haesendonck said.
“But they are also are trying to ensure that where the distance between schools is quite large, that those schools have enough funding to stay open.”
Due to it being about 58 km away from the nearest school in the board, Our Lady of the Way receives a number of grants to keep it in operation—even with the lower enrolment.
Boisvert said areas of the report that remained consistent was the value to the student, particularly with the benefit of small class sizes there.
“It provides a lot of one-to-one time and instruction with teacher,” he remarked, noting the presence of the Catholic school provides a Catholic faith-based education and spiritual development for the students.
“There’s a sense of community at the school,” Boisvert added. “It’s been identified as a very positive learning environment.”
He conceded there are areas of concern, such as a lack of peer interaction with lower enrolment, as well as the inability to offer certain programs or activities.
But Boisvert stressed the attitude at the school has really changed. Gone are the negative feelings that were present back in 2013.
“When you go into the school now, there is a very different feeling there,” he said. “It’s a feeling of hope.”
“It’s exciting to go into that school,” echoed Stratton trustee David Sharp.
“There’s lots going on for a small school.”
After seeing the information, Sharp said he would like to see the school remain open.
“It’s a really a positive thing,” he remarked.
“I’m really impressed with the report and I fully agree with the recommendation,” noted Fort Frances trustee Bob Grynol.
“I was very, very encouraged by the report,” echoed Fort Frances trustee Anne-Marie Fitzgerald.
“I agree that it’s most important for us to keep a Catholic presence of a school in the community west of Fort Frances,” she said.
“I think, as a school board, that is something we should strive to maintain and I think once we do, if that’s what we decide, that will also be encouraging,” Fitzgerald added.
She noted parents who have been considering sending their children to Our Lady of the Way will feel more confident in doing so without worrying the school will close.
That was the reason the board decided to move up a decision about the school, instead of waiting until February, 2017 as initially planned.
Boisvert said it’s been suggested the uncertainty of the school’s future might be a deterrent for some parents when making decisions about where to register their children, especially during Early Years registration, which begins in January.
It also was determined administration will maintain the viability committee in the school to continue to explore ways to make it vibrant.