A makeshift cross is seen marking the site of Lake Cowichan’s dearly departed AB Greenwell Elementary School

A makeshift cross is seen marking the site of Lake Cowichan’s dearly departed AB Greenwell Elementary School

Unique concerns at Cowichan Lake area schools

There are a number of things that make Cowichan Lake area schools unique.

There are a number of things that make Cowichan Lake area schools unique.

The main thing that puts Cowichan Lake apart from larger areas, such as Duncan, is that it’s somewhat off the beaten path, with a small population base.

With this small population comes some unique concerns when it comes to the schools.

Friends of Cowichan Kids is an informal group of parents that meet to discuss issues pertaining to Cowichan Lake area schools.

The main item of discussion for the past few years has been the closure of Lake Cowichan’s AB Greenwell Elementary School, which has resulted in kids being bussed out to Youbou’s Yount School.

“We have a lot of kids being bussed all the way to Youbou. That’s a long trip,” Friends of Cowichan Kids’ informal president Debbie Martel said. “Some of the kids weren’t getting home until 4 p.m. all the way in Honeymoon Bay.”

Things have improved a bit since then, she said, but things won’t be ideal until there’s a new elementary school in Lake Cowichan.

The opportunity of a new school has arisen in recent months, with School District 79 placing a new Lake Cowichan school at the top of its priority list of capital items.

A Neighbourhood of Learning grant has resulted in the Town of Lake Cowichan and School District 79 partnering to have consultant Sue Plester visit the community to find out what local residents would like involved in the school.

The current idea on the table is to have one large school constructed at the AB Greenwell site, tying in different community functions into the building.

“As a small community, we valued our small school,” Martel said.

“To have one big school we’d lose that little neighbourhood feeling.”

That said, Martel added that having one big school would be better than having no school at all.

One of the main reasons for this idea of having one large elementary school, versus two smaller schools, is a combination of a cost-saving measure and a result of the fact that there are fewer students at Cowichan Lake than there used to be.

“I’m sure that’s a result of a lack of jobs in the area,” mayor Ross Forrest said, of the local area’s aging population. “Without the jobs it’s a retirement community.”

There are several ongoing efforts to get jobs, and therefore young families, back into the area, Forrest said, including the recently-formed Cowichan Lake Economic Advisory Network, and some other groups.

Youbou Lands should be a big job-creator, he said. With nearly 2,000 units constructed in the next two decades, there will be a lot of new high-paying jobs in the area.

There’s also the ongoing hope that the forestry industry will turn around.

“In the next few years we’ll see the numbers going up,” local school board trustee Diana Gunderson said, of public school enrolment. “We’ve bottomed out.”

The small rural population has meant a few challenges, including class choice, she said.

“There’s always challenges offering full programs… Elective courses are always harder additions to the time table. At the elementary level there are a number of double classrooms.”

There are many positive things to make note of too, Gunderson noted.

“There are a lot of positive things in rural schools, which is why we fight to keep them open.

“You know your teacher, and the principal knows all the students in the school.”