Cowichan Secondary splitting up?

Cowichan Valley school trustees, teachers, students and parents will be asked what they think of splitting Cowichan Secondary

Cowichan Valley school trustees, teachers, students and parents will be asked what they think of splitting Cowichan Secondary into two distinctly different secondary schools.

A public consultation will be held Thursday evening, Jan. 28, at the school’s Quamichan campus multi-purpose room beginning at 6:30 p.m.

As Schools Superintendent Rod Allen told trustees at a special Board of Education meeting held Jan. 19 to open discussion on this one subject, the idea is to offer students more choice.

He began his talk with trustees with a brief recap of what happened in the spring of 2013: a decision was made to eliminate middle schools and Cowichan Secondary became a dual-campus facility with Grade 8 and 9 students spending most of their time at the Quamichan Campus.

Students from grades 10 to 12 were primarily at the James Street facility.

“While the Cowichan Secondary campus model has worked, it is not optimal. Students are required to move throughout the school day between campuses. The additional transition for students between middle and secondary schools that the dual campus was designed to rectify is now occurring between Grades 9 and 10,” Allen said, adding “student and staff identity continues to be problematic across a large dual campus setting.”

A possible solution is two distinct Grade 8-12 schools, he suggested.

“Students would have greater choice as to the flavour and focus of the school. They would still be doing, for instance, Language Arts 10, at both schools but they would have different approaches.”

But that’s not all, he said.

“We know that small schools mean better relationships. We know that smaller cohort size allows staff to really get to know those kids more fully. And we know that with the vulnerable kids those things are incredibly, incredibly important.

“There is very little to recommend single campus or large secondary schools other than the size of the course menu they can provide which doesn’t always ring true with student choice.”

Two distinct schools could begin to develop different characters, different specialties and focuses, he suggested.

“As we look at facilities, for example, we know that a lot of the performance arts facilities are at Quamichan. Maybe that school starts to develop greater depth in those areas. We know that more of the high-end shops and science labs are at the James Street campus. Maybe that school could follow that towards its own entity.”

He also suggested that while there might be some mixing and matching of courses at the senior level, this would still mean a significant reduction in the number of kids crossing the highway to get to classes.

Allen also said, “All the data that is out there now on smaller rather than larger schools says it improves academic performance. The research is pretty clear.”

He asked the board for leave “to have some conversations.”

These would include a community consultation evening on Jan. 28 plus chats with the administration teams from both Cowichan campuses.

“I would like to bring that information back to you on Feb. 2,” he said.

The board gave him the go-ahead.

Allen then told Trustee Cathy Schmidt that the goal for the project was indeed September 2016.

Trustee Joe Thorne said he thought it was time for some action.

“All of these conversations are good because we know we have to change direction, create new and better schools where kids could actually have a selection,” he said.

Trustee Elizabeth Croft asked if these changes might work better in the atmosphere of the new provincial curriculum and Allen replied, “Absolutely. The new curriculum allows for theming and focus; and we’re seeing existing large schools beginning to split themselves into smaller pieces to allow for those kinds of things.”

Board chair Candace Spilsbury said she has heard concern about student time spent travelling between campuses.

Allen said this plan would definitely decrease the frequency of travel.

But Spilsbury was also concerned about spring time budget talks and wanted to know if there would be enough time to convert Quamichan into a full secondary school by September.

Again, Allen was positive.

“It seems the answer is yes. How this would evolve over time is not known but it should be allowed to evolve over time.”

Trustee Barb DeGroot was looking at logistics.

“How do we determine how many students go where?” she asked.

Allen said that couldn’t be determined until everyone was able to examine the options more closely. He also suggested that “boutique operations” could be located where there was space for them.

“I would like to see this develop organically,” Croft said, but she also reminded the board that, “we can’t back off from something we’ve started.”

Thorne advised listening to students.

“When you talk to the kids, they tell you what they want,” he said.