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Edmonton's educational arrangements
A new approach to building schools

by Melanie Collison

The Alberta government's call for private sector partners to build schools in Edmonton's burgeoning suburbs is gaining momentum.

The Edmonton Public School Board (EPSB) is confident its Twin Brooks Elementary School partnership is a go, and the Catholic and Elk Island boards are in early discussions with potential partners. Twin Brooks pulled into the lead because the public board has long-standing relationships with the Edmonton YMCA and the Capital Health Authority, Edmonton's health and hospital board.

Being three years into a 10-year formal relationship with Capital Health makes working out specifics much easier, says Faye Parker, director of planning for Edmonton Public Schools. "Different values or different organizational cultures aren't expected to be a problem. We see it as much more than just a building arrangement."

"Twin Brooks is an expression of cooperation," says YMCA CEO Franco Savoia. "We have a long-standing relationship. [The Y is] in a number of schools with out-of-school child care. We also do stay-in-school programs, and work with kids who have been suspended. It's a collaborative partnership with child and family at the centre. [The school board] brings formal education; we bring community supports."

A couple of years back, the province gave the school board seed money to study the concept of multi-use buildings, Parker says, but it eventually cancelled its innovative funding program. Then this year, Alberta Infrastructure gave the EPSB approval for a stand-alone K-6 elementary school in the 10-year-old Twin Brooks neighborhood. Because it is twice the size of older Edmonton neighborhoods, its school is slated to hold 500 children, rather than the usual 300.

Assured of funding, the board went back to the organizations that had worked hard together when it seemed partnerships were a prerequisite for approval. Capital Health was still interested in locating a community clinic at the school, and the YMCA wanted the child-care centre. "We're trying to pull together the final details because we're in the process of designing the building. We need to get into the ground this fall," Parker says.

Without the cash to build its own space, the Y plans to sign a long-term lease for about 340 square metres to accommodate 36 pre-school children plus up to 60 older children before and after school. The lease would, over time, pay back what the school district is investing up front. Leasing rather than owning avoids complications, Savoia says. "If we built it, who owns it? Who gets the building permit? [We're asking] how can we get the best for the kids and families by working very, very closely together? As we roll this out in the next few years, I think the community will be much better served, in terms of programs and increased integration."

While the CEO of Capital Health is on the board of directors of the YMCA, the two organizations do not have a formal relationship. Savoia likes the idea of having a clinic in the same building because it furthers the concept of a neighborhood centre rather than just a school. Later additions would be less efficient in terms of both finances and operations.

"If we are to have partners, it would be much nicer if we could design and build the building with their space included," Parker says. "We're all very optimistic that, because this is a stated government initiative, they will provide the necessary support for it to happen."

David Bray, communications director for Alberta Infrastructure, confirms that the government wants to encourage partnerships, and says a symposium in December in Edmonton will address future uses of schools. He expects 300-400 participants from school boards and associations and building trades who would be affected.

Partnerships are not without their drawbacks. "Conceptually we think it's a good idea and there are all sorts of advantages; practically speaking there are challenges to pulling it all together," Parker admits. "To get all the planets to line up in time to get a building built is an interesting exercise. Capitol Health needs to get something formal from Alberta Infrastructure to fund the design work and, hopefully, to fund the rest of the space. If we can do it, I think it will be an exciting model that other school boards and other provinces could look at."

Savoia adds, "The secret to all this stuff is people. [The leaders of each organization] are committed to their communities. There are lots of reasons not to do [collaborative] things - it takes more work. But the long-term benefits are great. Given extremely tight resources, we've got to find more creative ways to make use of every square foot and every dollar. Are they easy to do? No, they're not. Are they worth doing? Absolutely."

Other projects under discussion include:

  • In Sherwood Park, a satellite community outside Edmonton, a multi-use campus is under consideration by Elk Island Public Schools, Elk Island Catholic Schools, and Ma Mowe Capital Region Child and Family Services; and
  • In Callingwood, in the west end, Edmonton Catholic Schools is talking to Sobeys West Inc. (IGA) about building a high school and grocery store. The two facilities would have a common roof and one shared wall, but would operate completely independently. Sobeys has offered to prepay a 25-year land lease for a portion of the property, which reverts to the school board if IGA does renew the lease.

The principal of Write Right Communications, Melanie Collison, is a freelance writer and editor based in Calgary.



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