A three-hour meeting with the school district left members of the ACE community with a continued sense of uncertainty about the alternative school’s move into the AESS building.
On Thursday, Oct. 24, around 30 people gathered in the library at AESS to ask the school district questions about why the alternative school was being moved.
“My reason for going was just being there to support Sandy (Balascak) and the future students,” Frances Oliver, an ACE graduate and former candidate for school board, said. She arrived at the meeting late Thursday, and stayed for the final hour of discussion.
“This has always been a shoe you could kind of see hovering over the school, and you’re just waiting for it to drop,” she said. “We’ve all, myself and my friends, discussed the possibility of this happening, and I can really put myself in these kids shoes, because we’ve been really close to this.”
On Tuesday, Oct. 15 at an in-camera meeting, the school board decided to relocate the ACE students and staff to the library inside AESS. Superintendent Karen Nelson told the Agassiz Harrison Observer the decision was made due to low student enrolment, as well as staff safety concerns and potential new academic opportunities for ACE students, since administrator Sandy Balascak is now the only teacher at the alternative school.
Students were told about the move on Monday, Oct. 21, and the school was set to relocate on Monday, Oct. 28.
ACE student Alison Loosdrecht spoke out against the proposed move, saying the decision will have a negative impact on those in the alternative school, many of who have said they left AESS because of bullying or similar reasons.
At the meeting on Thursday, Oct. 24, Loosdrecht and other students spoke out again in opposition, saying the move would be detrimental to their mental health and was taking them away from a place where they felt safe.
“It’s kind of like having that safe place ripped away from them and their basically getting sent back to that place they had to run away from,” Oliver said. “I would have the exact same sense of anxiety and panic they’re displaying if I was in that situation right now.”
“I think it’s amazing the reaction they are having, considering the circumstances,” she added. “I don’t know necessarily if I would have had so much maturity facing the situation.”
Some of the parents and community members at the meeting commented on Facebook and privately to the Observer that they felt they weren’t getting satisfactory answers from the school district representatives about how the transition would take place.
AESS principal Greg Lawley was present, as was superintendent Karen Nelson, school board chair Ron Johnstone, ACE administrator Sandy Balascak and school staff, including at least one who could be part of the new program once ACE moves.
Jeremy Riemersma, who was at the beginning of the meeting but left part way through, said he felt the district wasn’t taking concerns from ACE community seriously, and hadn’t followed their own bylaws in regards to notifying the public.
(Riemersma was referring to the SD78 bylaw on school closures, which he said should still apply in ACE’s case, as the building would be closed even if the program remains open.)
“I left about halfway through because I got fed up with the superintendent constantly telling me there is no change, this is how it’s going down,” he said.
“There not listening to the youth, the kids in the school about their anxiety, their mental anguish,” he added. “The superintendent kept saying we care about the children … but completely ignoring the fact that all this is being detrimental to their mental and physical health.”
Riemersma said that he went back into the meeting closer to the end, where parents and staff were discussing a possible “gentle transition” into the high school.
According to Oliver, who was there for much of that final discussion, it sounded like the school district was willing to move forward with a slower approach to the switch into the high school, and allow the students time to build trust with new staff members.
“I think they’ve really slowed down from a harsh transition into something that’s going to be thought about more,” Oliver said.
Originally, she said, it sounded like the students at ACE would arrive at AESS on Monday to a “harsh new reality.” Now, it sounds like they will get a chance to get to know the incoming program staff and build trust.
“I think they are going to work on that now that they heard the students’ opinion on it,” Oliver said. “But the students of ACE have really seen a revolving door of support staff, and it’s caused a lot of distrust in them when a new person does come into the situation.
“I think as a whole the program is very tightly knit, so they definitely needed to do more ground work, and it will be good to see if they are willing to commit to that. To earn the kids’ trust.”
As for the next steps?
Reimersma said the school district taking the slow approach to integrating the students into AESS will give parents time to see if they can stop the move from happening at all, although he’s not sure exactly how he’ll make that happen.
“I’m hoping that (gentle transition) will take a long time to give us some time to actually challenge and fight this,” he said.