Walnut Grove Public School in north Brampton hasn’t even opened its doors, and it’s already over capacity.
When students move into the new building this fall, more than 100 of them will be accommodated in the nine portable classrooms that will sit on the north side of the building on the blacktop.
Once a rare, temporary solution at aging schools, clusters of portables have become a normal part of the landscape in Brampton neighbourhoods.
At Castlemore Public School, which opened in 2008, there’s a trailer park-like colony of 18 portables on the blacktop behind the school – the outdoor space is heavily crowded at recess, even though junior and senior students are let out at different times. At Beryl Ford Public School, which only opened last year, there are 11 portables on school grounds with no room left to add any more.
Brampton, which is home to the youngest population in the GTA, also has one of the highest growth rates in Canada (while Toronto’s population grew 4.5 per cent from 2006 to 2011, Brampton’s shot up by 20.8 per cent). The school board has adopted a range of measures to cope, from using portables, to running a “hotel school” to house children while their school is being constructed, to routinely redrawing school boundaries to keep up with growth in establishing neighbourhoods.
But given the disruption to students and strain on facilities that such solutions bring, parents are asking why the board can’t get a better handle on its growing pains and why the province hasn’t made the region a funding priority.
The prevalence of portable classrooms irked Brampton parent Jagmohan Sahota so much that he pulled his two children out of the public system five years ago to put them in a private school at the cost of $30,000 a year, a solution he said several of his friends have turned to as well.
“It doesn’t look like you’re going to school in Canada,” he said. “In third-world countries, you can understand, but if you’re pay tons of taxes everywhere … this kind of service we’re getting back is ridiculous.”
The biggest challenge for planners within both the school board and the city is the way in which Brampton’s population is growing. Basement apartments and multifamily homes are an increasingly popular choice of living, especially among the city’s South Asian community, and that has made some neighbourhoods far denser than planners anticipated. While a detached home in a typical subdivision might have been built for a family with two kids, some are now occupied by two families with six kids between them.
The average yield of school-age children per household in Toronto is 0.24, according to the Toronto District School Board. That compares with 0.34 throughout the Peel District School Board, a figure that can be as high as 0.73 in some neighbourhoods in Brampton. Full-day kindergarten was introduced in 2010, and the number of full-time equivalent elementary students swelled by 11 per cent from 2009 to 2013.
Last fall, at Beryl Ford Public School, an unexpected bumper crop of 380 students registered just as the year was starting. Principal Connie Stella had to hire 13 to 15 staff members on Labour Day weekend to cope. “It’s amazing, the growth of student population. A lot of the homes, they do rent their basements out, and that’s where we’re getting the overflow,” she says. “[Schools] can’t really determine how many kids they might have.”
Randy Wright, controller of planning and accommodation support services at the Peel board, says it has struggled to get a handle on neighbourhood populations but has come to more accurate calculations in recent years. Brampton’s planning department works closely with the board and the population forecasting now includes secondary units (basement apartments) and factors in census undercounts.
And to explain why even new schools appear to be bursting at the seams, Mr. Wright says the board builds facilities based on predictions of how school populations will stabilize over time. New schools are usually constructed during the peak enrolment period, Mr. Wright says, and that’s why portables are used at first with the plan to remove them eventually. The planning department builds in such a way that there won’t be unused, wasted space in schools five or 10 years down the line when enrolment evens out.
Even if they’re only a temporary fix, teachers say portable classrooms provide an inferior learning environment.
“It’s never a great situation to take part of your community and put them outdoors, right? They almost feel isolated in a way when you put them outside,” says Matt Kuehn, a Grade 6 teacher at James Grieve Public School in Caledon, who will be moving to Brampton’s Walnut Grove school in the fall. Mr. Kuehn’s first teaching job was in a portable classroom at a Brampton school. Without running water, he had to carry two buckets of water to his portable each morning to wipe down the chalkboard or clean up messes students made.