Repurposed schools gain a new life and use Closed schools can still provide services to the community

CADENCE BERGMAN

McKay Avenue School, located in the heart of downtown Edmonton, is the oldest standing brick school in Alberta. But it hasn’t operated as a traditional school since 1983, when the Edmonton Public school board converted it into a museum. Today, students and the public visit the school and learn about the history of education in Edmonton, as well as our province’s early political history.

Throughout Edmonton’s mature neighbourhoods, declining student enrolment and increasing building maintenance costs have resulted in many more older schools closing–at least to students.

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According to officials, Edmonton Public school board has an inventory of 18 closed schools across the city. Ten of those are being used by the district for other purposes, and the other eight are leased to different school jurisdictions or to community service agencies. Likewise, the Edmonton Catholic school district has 12 closed schools in the city, with the district using four of them.  

Carrie Rosa, spokesperson for the school board, said that when the board leases to a non-profit organization, the building can still serve the community, and in some cases, even the students in the area. But the challenge is to operate and maintain the spaces. Open schools receive funding for maintenance from the province, unlike leased schools.

The Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society leases the former Parkdale School.

Cheryl Whiskeyjack, executive director for Bent Arrow, said about 350 people use the space every week.

The building houses administration and staff workspaces, meeting and classroom spaces. The gym is used for community activities like crafts, cultural teachings, ceremonies, dancing, and drumming.

Bent Arrow also uses the building for the Employment Resource Journey to Success program, which offers an employment resource centre, individualized plans, and workshops to help Indigenous individuals find employment.  

According to Whiskeyjack, there are challenges in leasing space in a former school, particularly when it comes to arranging and scheduling renovations, but there are benefits too.

“It’s got great bones! The rooms are versatile. The gym space is great and it’s got three kitchens so that works for us as well, as food is a big part of what we do.”

She continued, “It’s in the community. We are a part of the Avenue activities, so we get great community exposure. The building is versatile. The green space outside is also a benefit. For the size of our organization, it’s affordable [and it’s] good for folks using public transit.”

As for the Edmonton Catholic school district, two inner-city school buildings are Sacred Heart and the former St. Patrick’s School, now One World…One Centre. These former schools now house literacy programs, daycare centres, and other staff and programs.

Boris Radyo, assistant superintendent of educational planning with the school district, said about 80 staff work at each of the schools.

“[One World…One Centre] has a focus on English language learners, so that’s an intake centre for newcomers. Students come there with their parents, they are assessed, we provide programs for the students, we provide supportive programs for the parents, and we also provide language instruction during the day and during the evening,” said Radyo.

One World…One Centre has grown from six classes in 2011 to 18 today, and translators offer services in around a dozen languages.

“When we lease out our school buildings, especially for example to private school operators, we continue to maintain those schools at very high levels, so the surrounding community has a valuable asset in their neighbourhood… that provides services to the community,” said Radyo.


REPURPOSED SCHOOLS

Alex Taylor School (93 St and Jasper Ave). E4C centre since 2001. Adult literacy, hot lunch programs, family counseling services.

Bellevue School (71 St and 115 Ave). Closed in 2003 and sold to the Distinctive Employment Counseling Services of Alberta (DECSA).

Eastwood School (81 St and 120 Ave). Leased to the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers and the Nebula Foundation.

McCauley School (95 St and 107 Ave). Leased to the Multicultural Health Brokers Cooperative.

Parkdale School (85 St and 116 Ave). Leased to Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society.

Sacred Heart School (96 St and 108 Ave). Adult Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC), and childcare for children of LINC students.

St. Patrick’s School (95A St and 120 Ave). One World…One Centre, ECSD. LINC Program, home economics kitchen, childcare for children of LINC students.

Queen Mary Park School (113 St and 109 Ave). Leased to École À la Découverte, part of the Conseil scolaire Centre-Nord (Francophone School Board).


Featured Image: Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society leases what used to be Parkdale School. | Cadence Bergman

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