Preliminary figures show a drop of 232 (six per cent) full-time enrolled (FTE) students this September compared to last year, even after accounting for the implementation of full-day kindergarten in Dawson Creek elementary schools. The biggest declines are being experienced at Dawson Creek Secondary School (112 FTEs) and Chetwynd Secondary School (58 FTEs), though 11 other schools also seeing declining enrollment.
“Some of it is that enrollment drop that started about 10 years ago in kindergarten making its way through the high school, so some of that was anticipated,” said Slykhuis.
In fact, the decline in enrollment continues the downward trend over the past 12 years – 3,857 FTEs this year compared to 5,342 in 1999, or a 28 per cent drop. The district has a total capacity for 6,088 FTE students.
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“It’s preliminary, but I don’t anticipate a huge change before the end of the month,” Slykhuis added about this year’s enrolment numbers.
District management speculated that the lack of affordable housing for families and the incentives for out-of-town workers offered by industry were at least partly responsible for why the region isn’t seeing as many new students enroll as might be expected by the amount of economic activity happening here. Superintendent Kathy Sawchuk said the industry practice of paying out-of-town workers a living-out allowance certainly provides an incentive for those workers and their families not to relocate to the region.
“A living-out allowance can range from $50 a day to $150 a day, and it’s tax-free money, so if you were a young person, why would you move,” she said. “In some cases, it’s a $4,500 addition to a paycheck per month. If you do move, and you’re facing a $2,000 month rent and you’re not getting a living-out allowance, why would you do it?”
Assistant superintendent Rob Dennis agreed, adding that it is obvious many of those workers are not staying in the region beyond their jobs.
“I think you only need to go through our parking lots at our motels at any given evening to see the number of plates from out of province,” he said.
Slykhuis said a lack of accommodations for workers and their families in Fort Nelson a few years ago likely contributed to the school district there seeing a 10 per cent enrolment drop in one year even though the economy there was booming there.
He added he had heard enrollments in the region’s private schools were up, and suggested that might be in part due to the threat of a teacher’s strike at public schools, though he said that is just speculation. Sawchuk said the fact Peace Christian School in Chetwynd expanded its grade levels this year may have influenced enrolment figures at the public schools there.
Dennis said there is no doubt the drop in enrolment will have impacts on the staffing and resources available to schools, and it is even a more complex problem because the declines are spread fairly evenly around most of the schools in the district.