Joe Dillon and Garrett Stirling read books inside the gym during class. Two classes at Isabella Dicken Elementary School are temporarily being held in the gym while two portables are being prepared. The portables were ordered to accommodate growth in the school, however, were delivered late due to a high demand for portables in the lower mainland. Alexandra Heck/The Free Press

Isabella Dicken Elementary gets creative

Makeshift classrooms held in gymnasium while portables are prepared

While it’s not exactly ideal, the classrooms in the gym are certainly spacious.

With an increasing demand for space at Isabella Dicken Elementary School in Fernie, and a provincial mandate for smaller class sizes, two new classes were created over the summer.

Two new, full time teachers were hired at the school, and a pair of portables were purchased.

Unfortunately, the portables were shipped to Fernie late— and staff had to get a little creative in the meantime.

“We needed two classrooms,” said IDES Principal, Nicole Neufeld. “We didn’t have an empty classroom in our building so we got two new portables.”

The school ordered the new units back in May, before the end of the school year, as they predicted classroom space would be in short supply.

“This is the first year that we’ve gone to four straight kindergarten classes,” said the principal, adding that the incoming kindergarten class was larger than the outgoing grade six class, contributing to the growth in the student body.

In addition, the provincial mandate to reduce class sizes back to numbers that they were in 2002 also created a greater need for extra classrooms and teachers, and Isabella Dicken was just one of many schools in the province with the high demand for portables.

As a result, there was a delay in the two units arriving.

“There’s several schools in the lower mainland that have upwards of 20 portables per school,” she said, noting that in the grand scheme of things, Isabella Dicken has plenty of options for space.

The school property still has significant green space to accommodate more portables and ample room for students to play at recess.

That same green space was utilized for gym classes for the month of September, while the two classes, soon to be held in the portables, are in the gymnasium while they wait.

The units are now on site and ramps are being set up for them and are expected to be fully functional by the end of the week.

“We’re just keeping up with the pace of change,” she said, explaining that the interim classroom configuration hasn’t at all affected the quality of learning.

“The teachers have worked really well together,” she said, explaining that inside the gym, the two classes will coordinate quiet times and more dynamic activities as to not disturb one another.

“We are going to have to do something,” said Rob Noram, the treasurer for the school district, when asked about the growth projections for Isabella Dicken. “We are going to continue to add portables if we need to.”

Isabella Dicken Elementary School is on the capital replacement list with the Ministry of Education. The new government has indicated in their mandate to allocate funding for new schools in the province, but have yet to indicate whether it would make the cut.

Across the province, lower mainland schools in places such as Chilliwack and Surrey sit in dire need of extra space, their yards awash in a sea of portables.

Across the East Kootenays over 23 classes were added this year, but compared to other districts such as Burnaby or Surrey— it’s hard to say where the District falls on the priority list says Noram.

Last year, the City of Fernie met with the Ministry of Education to discuss expanding Fernie’s only public elementary school. Mayor Mary Giuliano told the ministry that an expansion is necessary because of the city’s steady, continued growth.

“More than ever we need a replacement,” said Giuliano, who a few months ago met with Frank Lento, the school trustee.

The Mayor says she plans on having council send a letter to the new Minister of Education, Rob Fleming, to continue lobbying for a new school.

Fernie Council is expecting to hear more on the status of Isabella Dicken from the school board in coming months.

“We’re going at this from a number of different perspectives,” said Lynn Hauptman, the Superintendent for District 5. She says that the school board’s projections indicate continued growth for Isabella Dicken and by 2030, they expect to be up another 175 to 200 students.

The district currently has a consulting company, Stantec, focusing on a growth plan for the Fernie elementary school, mandated to outline the possible options. The solutions could be an addition on the existing building, an entirely new building, or the creation of an additional elementary school.

In School District 5, Isabella Dicken along with Mount Baker Highschool in Cranbrook are on the top of the priority list for needing an expansion.

Most recent census data from 2016 suggested that the city of Fernie has the highest rate of growth in the country for its category, growing over 18 per cent from 2011 to 2016—twice the rate for the rest of the East Kootenays.

The percentage of the population under the age of 14 is two per cent higher than the average for the region as well. However, Fernie’s demographic didn’t always look like this. Over a decade ago, there were three elementary schools operating in the city; Isabella Dicken, built in 1968, Ridgemont and Max Turyk.

Both Max Turyk and Ridgemont were closed by the SD5 board of trustees as the result of dwindling enrollment levels and financial constraints.

Ridgemont was closed in 2002 and Max Turyk was closed in 2007.

Now, the growth in students, especially young ones, are on an upward trajectory.

“We’re adding students every year,” said Neufeld, who has 21 new pupils this year. “I think we’re also projecting for larger kindergarten classes in the future.”

Even parent volunteers like Nicole Heckendorf, who leads the Parent Advisory Committee is noticing not only growth in the school, but an increase in activity participation.

“I don’t see any of the growth as negative,” she said, explaining that both staff and parent volunteers have become creative in handling the changes.

She says that last year, nearly 700 parents and students attended the annual spring lunch event.

“We did two separate seating times, which we’ve never done before,” said Heckendorf. Instead of serving sandwiches or cheese platters, they chose a more manageable option to accommodate the attendance rates.

She says the strawberry shortcake lunch was a hit.

“Could we use a new school? Absolutely,” she said. “It’s a super fun and exciting place. You don’t want to diminish that, but at the same time, we do need a new school.”