September/October Feature Story
“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.“
If you have lived in the West Shore long enough, you probably already know that Sooke School District #62 is one of the fastest-growing and most progressive school districts in B.C. It currently has over 11,000 students in a district that extends all the way up to Port Renfrew.
For committed people like Ravi Parmar, School Board Chair, and one of 7 trustees for Sooke School District #62, its oversight is a huge responsibility—far bigger than most people realize.
“As trustees, as elected politicians, we are responsible for a lot,” says Parmar. “The budget for the entire province is a record $2.7 billion this year. It will be used for capital investments for new schools, expansions, seismic upgrades and land purchases for future schools. Our operating budget is $150M for a staff of 1,600 people.”
Q: With our growing population, managing facility space today and for future students must be a huge challenge, too?
A: Today, most of our schools [in SD #62] are at or nearing capacity: we’re over 100% capacity in the Belmont and Royal Bay family of schools and roughly 93% capacity with the Edward Milne school family. Portables are now the norm. We currently have 59 portables in place to handle excess capacity and act as a temporary solution to deal with our exponential growth. The good news is that earlier this year, Premier Horgan announced funding for a new elementary and middle school and for a future secondary school in the West Shore. That is going to help eliminate portables and implement our board’s plan to build new classroom spaces for our growing community.”
Q: Can you provide us with some specifics on what that will look like?
A: By September 2022, we expect to open a new 500-seat elementary school and a 700-seat middle school on Constellation Avenue ready for students in the West Langford area. The new elementary school will feature a ‘Neighbourhood Learning Centre’ with child care space to further benefit young families in the community. In September 2020, we are scheduled to complete the 600-seat expansion at Royal Bay Secondary in Colwood.
Q: What about land purchases for future schools?
A: This has been one of our biggest challenges in the past, trying to convince governments of the need to purchase land pre-development for new schools in the future. We’re in an area that is attracting 300-500 students every year.
Q: And land’s not going to get any cheaper going forward, is it?
A: No, it isn’t. McCallum or South Skirt properties are a good example of land that we purchased prior to development. We’ll be using the South Skirt property for a future 400- seat elementary school and the McCallum development for a future secondary school. That land is worth a whole lot more now. We are now working to locate land in South Langford and South WestShore/Colwood for two other future elementary schools.
Q: What about post-secondary facilities?
A: For the past few years, Camosun College has been operating out of Belmont Secondary’s Neighbourhood Learning Centre, offering first-year courses to students in the West Shore. The School District has also been advocating for a West Shore post-secondary institution in partnership with
Colwood’s Royal Roads and the City of Langford. The Provincial Government has contributed $2M for us to come up with a Capital Plan Proposal that would go to Treasury Board in the very near future. This proposal process is underway right now. The MLAs are very supportive.
Q: SD #62 has inherited a number of schools that fall into the “very small” category. What are the future plans for these schools?
A: Some of these small school structures no longer support a growing population, especially in areas that are not semi-rural anymore. The focus now is to accommodate this growth by building bigger schools. Unfortunately, the Provincial Government is not interested in replacing more than 1 school a year, province wide. Most of their money is going into seismic upgrades and new schools.
Q: How feasible would it be to spend money on replacing some of the existing 100-year-old school structures?
A: We’ve done a life cycle cost analysis on this very issue. We would spend more money if we build a new school now but, in the long run, the cost of building it later will be even higher because of the resources we are putting in to a building that should be replaced. In the end, it’s a good thing that our school district had the foresight not to close down our small schools because the population in some areas is rising. Some school districts, like Prince George, not only closed its schools but actually sold the land, too. Now that they’re growing again, they are out looking for land to build new schools and having to pay a much higher price for it.
Q: What would you say is innovative and progressive about our School District?
A: We do more than educate kids in our district. Social and emotional learning is a high priority to us. Because if kids can’t feel safe, then not much learning is going to happen. The Wellness Centre is an excellent example of innovation at Belmont Secondary’s Learning Centre.
It’s a full-time, walk-in clinic and fully accessible to all 1,200 students at the school. It’s operated by public health nurses, doctors who are available to students twice a week, nurse practitioners, and mental health councillors. It’s been so successful that it’s serving as a model for other schools in the district and across the province.
Q: How is it working out for the students?
A: The school district did a study within the first year of operation. It showed that a significant number of students were making good use of this service. All this came about thanks to our great relationship with Island Health. They have been so supportive of our intention to provide speedy, convenient access to all types of services for our students right at the school, including mental health and drug addiction services. We’re hoping that partnership will continue and help us to expand the Wellness Centre concept into the Royal Bay Secondary once their expansion is completed. That expansion, by the way, will make Royal Bay Secondary— with its 1,400 students—the largest secondary school on Vancouver Island!
Q: How is the school system augmenting its resources for digital technology?
A: An important step that our Board has taken to support digital learning in classrooms is to provide a laptop to every full-time teacher in the school district. This will lead to equity in classrooms and teachers not using their personal devices. How administrators and teachers use technology is just as important. To prepare for a digital future, teachers also receive professional development to help them learn best practices for implementing technology in the classroom and to facilitate student-centered learning.
“We do more than educate kids in our district. Social and emotional learning is a high priority to us. Because if kids can't feel safe, then not much learning is going to happen.”
—Ravi Parmar, School Board Chair, Trustee for Sooke School District #62