Just over 20 people came out to the ACE transition meeting at the AESS library on Thursday, Nov. 7. (Grace Kennedy/The Observer)

Bullying remains key concern in ACE move to Agassiz high school

The move could be temporary, as AESS aims to get funding for a total replacement in two years

The transition from the ACE building to AESS has gone slowly for the alternative school, but more work needs to be done to alleviate concerns about anxiety and bullying, according to students and parents.

ACE parents and students, as well as staff from AESS, ACE and the school district all met Thursday night (Nov. 7) to discuss the first two weeks of the slow transition from the ACE building next to the high school to a small room in the school’s library.

The meeting took place two weeks after a tense discussion between parents and staff, that ultimately ended in a decision to gradually transition the students into the AESS building.

RELATED: Slower transition possible for ACE move

On Thursday night, ACE administrator Sandy Balascak said the ACE program had been aiming to some more fun things in the AESS library room for about two blocks each day — although not every day saw them make that goal.

“Sometimes, there’s poor attendance in the second (block) so we take them elsewhere,” she said.

Attendance was a challenge, she said, and she asked for parents help to make sure the students were at school for the blocks they would be at AESS.

“In order to make this transition go more smoothly, we really need the kids to stay in the time that they are here,” she said. “It’s hard for me to get them used to a system if they’re just leaving or they’re not coming.”

Starting next week, students will be spending the first half of the day at AESS on every day except Thursday, when the students participate in a mentorship program at Kent Elementary. By the end of the month, Balascak hopes to have the program fully transitioned into the new space.

There are some challenges, particularly with the size of the room in the library. Air circulation is poor, and the room can get extremely stuffy with five or six people in it. There also isn’t a space for private meetings between Balascak and students when it’s required.

SEE ALSO: LETTER: ACE transition, or closure, not acceptable

These challenges, and others, were discussed during the meeting Thursday night and a few ended in some resolution.

AESS acting vice-principal Gord Johnson said the school would consider removing a bank of computers from one of the walls in the library to give the ACE students a better break-out area, which could leave the small library room for more one-on-one conversations or a mental health space.

“There’s no intent to have the ACE kids in there and shut the door on them,” AESS acting principal Greg Lawley said. “It’s going to spill out into the library a little bit.”

Counsellor and librarian Paula O’Brien also suggested that during the transition, the library could be closed to the rest of the school from morning until after lunch, giving ACE students more time to become acquainted with the space without needing to interact with AESS students.

For ACE student Alison Loosdrecht, who has been a vocal opponent to the program’s move, being in the same space as AESS students and staff has been causing a lot of anxiety among the ACE students, resulting in more of them skipping the blocks that would be taking place at the high school.

RELATED: ACE students being relocated to Agassiz high school

“The level of anxiety when we’re in that classroom — people may not want to admit it, but we can see it,” she explained. “I used to get through a unit of math in two weeks, I’ve gotten two pages farther, because when I’m in this building … I will put my earbuds in, I’ll put my music in, I won’t socialize. I can’t do it.

“So that’s why I leave, because when I leave I can do it.”

Other students at the meeting agreed, and Balascak also noted that academic progress has declined significantly among her students during the transition.

“Maybe we’ll have more mental health support here, but you’re saying this is for academics but nobody is getting anything done,” Loosdrecht said. “Even if they try.”

Few specific recommendations came up to help the students deal with anxiety and academic struggles, although it was decided that emotional support animals will be allowed in the ACE space inside AESS. However, a general discussion around bullying dominated the two hour meeting.

SEE ALSO: In their words: Agassiz students talk about bullying in today’s world

The main concern was around ACE students returning to a place where they felt they had been bullied in the past, and had concerns about being bullied again. Most parents and program supporters were shocked to hear AESS had not formally announced ACE’s introduction to the school.

“At the last meeting, the students who were here and some of their parents were very concerned about the bullying the students had received on these premises, and by students who go to this school outside of these premises. I think that is something that has to be very seriously addressed,” Lesley Ward, a long-time supporter of ACE, said.

“The school has had two weeks to start to address it. But by not announcing to the general student population of AESS that the ACE students are here — sure they’ve heard it through the grapevine, and they’ve heard all kinds of other stories as well,” she continued. “I think it really should have been addressed after our last meeting, or even before our last meeting.”

Lawley said teachers had been informed and were told they could tell their students. The plan had been to issue a welcome to ACE once they were fully integrated into the building, he said, but agreed to making a school-wide announcement in the next few days.

This touched on the need for more preventative measures when it came to bullying at the school, as some students and parents felt the district’s no-bullying policy hadn’t gone far enough in the past to stop it. One student had also requested the schools come up with a policy that would restrict AESS students who bullied ACE students from entering the library.

That idea was agreed to by both Balascak and Lawley, although the details of the policy have yet to be worked out.

SEE ALSO: Zero-tolerance policies aimed at stopping bullying not working, say experts

In addition to the more emotional aspects of the ACE transition, the meeting also looked at the ACE move from a facilities perspective. According to SD78 director of facilities and transportation Doug Templeton, the facilities department is willing to do anything that’s required to make the space workable for the program.

“Once the list is brought to us, we’ll move forward on it,” he said. “Any of the facility requirements that we need to adjust or move, build a wall here, whatever the case may be. We’re committed to make that happen as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

ACE student Jack Morrison questioned why so many changes were able to be made to the space, when there didn’t seem to be enough finances to hire another teacher to keep ACE’s current building operational. Templeton said the upgrades to the library came out of a separate part of the budget, which was one-time funding allocated for the renewal of SD78 buildings, rather than the staff budget. Superintendent Karen Nelson also noted that enrolment and attendance was not enough to warrant another full-time teacher at ACE.

Significantly, Templeton also mentioned that ACE’s existence in the AESS library is likely to be temporary, as the school district is hoping to get funding to replace the entire AESS building sometime this year.

RELATED: New schools, upgrades possible for Agassiz, Harrison students

“At the time, we’ll discuss what programs are being run at the school and around the school property, what their requirements are for the new construction,” he said. “At that point we would be engaging with the school board and this particular program to see how it fits on this site — whether it’s incorporated into a new structure, or another structure beside the new structure, whatever that may be.

“But I want to make it fairly well known to everybody that most of this structure will be demolished.

Templeton is optimistic about the school’s chances for funding, as people from the Ministry of Education have come to look at the AESS building within the last two months. He said if they hear an announcement this year, shovels could be in the ground as early as the 2021-22 school year, with a new building complete in 18 months or two years.

“When I look at what we’re doing here today, I see this as temporary. Because the goal is to replace all this,” he said.

For Morrison, this raised more questions than it answered.

“What’s the point of moving us into this building if you guys are going to be demolishing that building within the next year?” he said, directing his comments at Templeton and Nelson.

“We just spent however much money restoring that building, and now we’re being kicked out to demolish it?” He continued. “It hasn’t even been up in use for a whole year. So we just wasted a bunch of money that people paid tax for, just to demolish it and to put us in a much smaller room.”

Nelson replied with similar comments to what she had made at the first meeting between parents and staff, saying the move was to allow for more enhanced programming for the students and to provide a safe space for Balascak as the only teacher at ACE.

Although the move to AESS is expected to take another three weeks, no further meetings have been planned between parents, students and staff. Balascak said she would take with the students closer to the end of the transition, and if they feel a discussion would be beneficial, one will be planned.


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