OCDSB’s September enrolment is 1,600 students lower than expected

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Student enrolment at Ottawa’s largest school board is about 1,600 students lower than expected, which means students and teachers in some schools are getting shuffled.

By the end of September, all school boards in the province are expected to confirm the actual number of students in schools. The figure is then compared to the numbers projected last spring. Classes with low enrolment may be combined with other classes, and teachers and other education workers may be moved to other classes or schools.

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Ottawa-Carleton District School Board chair Lyra Evans said projected enrolment is based on factors such as new developments, projected growth in some neighbourhoods and the board’s “market share” compared to the Ottawa Catholic School Board and the two French-language boards.

“It isn’t an exact science,” she said.

“We haven’t really experienced a drop in enrolment. We had a drop in projected enrolment.”

The issue affects elementary schools. The board has not seen a similar situation in high schools.

According to a snapshot taken in mid-September, there were 50,507 elementary students enrolled last year compared to 50,510 this year. The “lost” growth projections were mostly in developing communities in the south urban area, including Findlay Creek, Riverside South and Barrhaven, as well as Kanata and Stittsville. 

Some families have been disappointed and surprised by the shuffles.

SueEllen MacGowan’s son, now in Grade 5, and daughter, in Grade 6, are in the English stream at Hopewell Avenue Public School. They each have an individual education plan (IEP), which describes the specialized instruction and accommodations they receive.

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They had been together in a split class for two previous years, but were in separate classes in September until a shuffle was announced Wednesday. The desks were moved on Friday, said MacGowan. 

“It’s not good for a kid to have the rug pulled out from under them. In previous years, we knew full well it would be a split class,” she said. “We were excited to have them in separate classes. I notice that they’re happier when they’re not together all day.”

There are about 13 students in her son’s Grade 5 class and about the same in her daughter’s Grade 6 class, making for a merged class of about 26 students. MacGowan fears that, by the end of the year, the class size could balloon.

Students in the English program, which has fewer students and a higher proportion of students with learning disabilities than the French immersion program, are more likely to be affected by mergers, she said. As the class size has doubled, she has concerns about the noise factor and distractions, even though parents have been assured that learning supports will continue.

“When a class size is maximized by October, there’s a risk the class size will grow by the end of the year. There needs to be transparency,” said MacGowan. “Kids with high needs are on the chopping block.”

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According to the board, the shuffles are based on a number of factors, including Ministry of Education class size requirements, collective agreements and the needs of students who require additional support. 

Under the provincial rules, there are caps or maximum class sizes in some grades and programs, but not others.

In kindergarten, the maximum class size is capped at 29 students with one teacher and one early childhood educator. In grades 1, 2 and 3, no class can be above 23 students and 90 per cent of classes must have 20 or fewer students. There is no maximum class size for grades 4 through 8, but the average across the board must be 24.5 students per class. 

As to why the enrolment numbers are so low, the board said in a statement that it does not typically get information from families about why they choose to enrol their children elsewhere.

“There can be many reasons for enrolment shifts including family moves, program changes, transportation issues or day care challenges, or families withdrawing and sending students to other school districts, private schools or homeschooling for personal reasons,” said the board in a statement.

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“While numbers may fluctuate, the level of decline from our projected enrolment this year was unexpected.

“The board does not expect any layoffs or redundancies. There are a number of available positions across the district and we will strive to match all individuals affected with vacancies that may exist in their school or across the school district,” said the board’s statement. 

The Ottawa-Carleton unit of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario did not respond to a request for comment.

The OCDSB is Ontario’s seventh-largest board by school population with more than 70,000 total students in 113 elementary schools, 25 high schools and five secondary alternate sites.  The OCDSB’s “market share” in Ottawa is typically between 60 and 65 per cent, said Evans. 

This is not the first time the OCDSB has faced reshuffling classrooms and teachers as a result of lower-than-expected enrolment. In 2020, almost 1,900 fewer students than expected were enrolled and the board predicted funding would drop by $24 million.

This year, the funding gap between what was expected as a result of growth in enrolment and the actual enrolment is about $15 million on a total budget of about $1.1 billion, said Evans. Much of the gap will be absorbed as teachers leave or retire.

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“It isn’t as big of a gap as it looks. We know we won’t have to hire as many teachers,” she said.  

When classes were combined at Hopewell Avenue Public School in the past, there had been an exodus of students to other school boards, said MacGowan. For students in the English stream, Catholic schools, private schools and home schooling are the only alternatives, with most students leaving for the Catholic system, she said.

“Those families left permanently. I have never seen those families back.”

This newspaper contacted the three other school boards in Ottawa to ask for their enrolment numbers. The Ottawa Catholic School Board said it is releasing its enrolment numbers on Oct. 11.

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