A split vote from the former elected school board saved their elementary school in 2016, but parents on Big Tancook Island have fears it could still close because of staffing issues stemming from the island’s remote location and students’ special needs.
Normally at the end of a school year, children find out who their teacher will be in September but, not those who attend BTES [Big Tancook Elementary School], said parent Ann Westhaver. The teaching principal hired for the last school year didn’t finish out the year and there was no replacement by June 29.
“Going into the summer months not knowing if you’re going to have a teacher or a TA [teacher’s assistant] in your school come September is very frustrating for a parent,” said Westhaver. “Not having a school or a teacher there means a whole pile of stuff for the parents in terms of how we go forward and what we do.”
Parents say the teacher who gets the job has to either adapt to island life or the ferry schedule to travel there for it to work out. It’s about an hour one way, and the schedule of the nearest mainland school, Chester District, isn’t in sync with the ferry arrival and departure times.
Westhaver’s youngest son William is returning to the school in September with five other students. The Westhavers moved to the island from Liverpool last year to help care for a family member. “We got her placed in care but we loved it so much here we decided to stay,” Westhaver told the South Shore Breaker. William has ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder] and needs support.
“The school board will tell you ‘well you made the decision to live on the island,’” she said. “If they’re going to continue with a school on the island, they need to offer up the same services that any school is getting on the mainland. We have to be seen as no different than any other school. We’re still entitled to that visit from the super or making sure the equipment we have is up to standard and get visits from behavioural support staff. There should be no difference in our rights. Being just a half school is not enough for our children.”
Laura Baker has lived on Big Tancook for 47 years and her six-year-old son Josh is the seventh generation of their family to live on the island. Josh, who has autism and ADHD, began primary at BTES last September. Baker said because of the lack of support, the former teaching principle limited his time to mornings only. She said she knows he would be better supported in Chester if they don’t get the proper support on the island, including a teacher’s assistant that he and other students require that hasn’t been advertised yet, said Baker. “But how do we get him (to Chester) every day? With his behaviours, daily travel is not an option. If they had a quiet room on the ferry, he could be in it [and] would be OK if they also hired a boat monitor,” she said. All children under the age of 11 need to have supervision on the ferry. “We would have to move,” she said, which would make her unemployed from her lobster fishing livelihood and take Josh away from the outdoor island life he loves.
Westhaver added the qualifications for the teaching job — a master’s degree and principal background — eliminates a lot of people that can apply for the position. It was suggested that the previous long-term teacher, who still lives on the island after she retired, could job share the administrative portion of the role. “But they didn’t want to consider it,” said Westhaver.
Scott Milner, who became the superintendent of the South Shore Regional Education Centre after the school was saved from closure, says they’re doing everything they can to ensure the school stays open. A job posting on the centre’s website stated the teaching principal position was to begin on August 1.
Milner said he understands people’s suspicions when things don’t go smoothly, but there is no hidden agenda to close the school, he said. “It’s an NSTU [Nova Scotia Teachers Union] position so it has to go through its rounds.” Milner added he expects applicants to be fully briefed on the working conditions and support the applicant as much as possible.
“Considering the shaky ground we seem to find ourselves on when it comes to our little school, I know the parents here are often nervous when there is any sort of change, but I am confident that in September we will have a fresh new start to an awesome school year,” said the chair of the school’s advisory committee Hillary Dionne, who is involved in the hiring process.