Original Published 20:09 May 17, 2022

By Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Controversial plans to redraw classroom catchment areas across southeast Winnipeg have prompted English students to accuse the Louis Riel School Division of favouritism towards their French immersion peers.

Division leaders recently shared with families a proposal to address the growing population in the suburb of Sage Creek, and rising French immersion enrolment overall.

The blueprint involves moving Windsor Park Collegiate students into Collège Béliveau, a French immersion high school located around the corner, and vice versa in 2024-25. School signage will change to secure the permanent building swap.

Shortly before 10 a.m. Monday, upwards of 120 students gathered on the front lawn of Windsor Park to protest.

Teenagers chanted: “Hell, no, we won’t go!” as passersby honked in support.

“We want equal opportunities. We respect both the English and the French programs — but we can’t accept the fact that one is being favoured over the other. It’s unfair and it’s not necessary,” said Grade 9 student Shafia Razzaq.

The 15-year-old said the proposed changes benefit Béliveau students because they will be moving into a larger facility with two gymnasiums, one of which is equipped with a stage that has helped WPC build its established musical theatre program. Béliveau, a facility of roughly 19,000 fewer square feet, has a single gymnasium.

There was widespread concern among the protesters about limited student consultation on the matter and the potential loss of programming, including band and guitar offerings, competitive sports teams, and special electives.

By the end of the school day, approximately 1,200 people had signed an online petition in favour of dissolving the building-swap idea.

If the proposal is approved as is, both high schools in the area are anticipated to downsize from grades 7-12 to grades 9-12 buildings. The division expanded WPC and Béliveau several years ago to include junior high students amid extensive enrolment pressures in Sage Creek — a community with a single grade school, at present.

Overcrowding at École Sage Creek School has been an issue since before it even opened.

In 2017, the elementary building welcomed its first students as a K-8 facility with dual-track programming to serve the bustling suburban development. Its offerings have been altered on multiple occasions to address space issues — in turn, requiring local residents to be bussed out of their neighbourhoods.

The new blueprint takes into account the opening of a second elementary school in Sage Creek in 2025. When that building opens, LRSD plans to make it a milieu school for immersion students so they can go to school in their home community until Grade 8 and then move to Béliveau.

English students from Sage Creek, who are currently attending Shamrock School outside their community because of limited space, will be rerouted from WPC to attend high school at J.H. Bruns Collegiate. In order to accommodate more students, the division aims to renovate the latter building with an addition.

Sage Creek mother Sandra Beer said she wants to be assured all students will have the same opportunities, no matter where they go. At the moment, Beer said that is not the case and the division is choosing to prioritize French immersion in these plans because of its policy on single-track French immersion.

“I can see (fully immersion schools) being a wonderful thing, but at what cost? Because it’s costing a lot right now,” she said during a phone call Monday.

Beer’s daughter said she is frustrated with being moved around. Since entering the public school system, Julia Beer, 13, has already attended three different schools owing to catchment changes.

Upon learning of the latest, Julia said she cried in class Friday — in part, because it will mean her younger brother will attend another high school and she is a protective sibling who wants to look out for him.

Superintendent Christian Michalik said he understands there are worries related to the proposal, which is why the division has outlined its plans far in advance.

“We’re going to journey together over the next two years and beyond to reimagine spaces in all three (high) schools, and work at that together with students, staff, with interested parents and guardians, and relieve the anxieties, the fears, the concerns,” Michalik said.

The division leader noted building another high school is not a feasible option because LRSD already has seven such buildings — far more per capita than the neighbouring Pembina Trails School Division, currently home to four, despite having a similar population.

Asked about allegations of favouritism, Michalik said he cares deeply about all students’ well-being and learning. The superintendent pointed out the overwhelming majority of LRSD high schools — five of seven — are fully English.

This item reprinted with permission from Winnipeg Free Press, Winnipeg, Manitoba