CANMORE – As rural school boards across the province struggle with declining enrollment and finding ways to balance their budgets, the Canadian Rockies Public School (CRPS) division is trying a different approach to generate additional revenue.
Over the course of the summer months, the local school division welcomed two international student groups from China to spend up to four weeks in the Bow Valley to learn English, experience Canadian culture and explore the mountains. A third group of students is expected to arrive this week.
“I think it’s a natural expansion of the international student program we already have,” said Chris MacPhee, superintendent for CRPS.
“They’re short term programs and they bring significant revenue into the system that is utilized to offset the costs of shortfalls that we have in regard to funding and it assists us with keeping staff levels high because all of that revenue goes directly into the classroom.”
Finding ways to generate more money to support staffing levels has been an ongoing challenge for rural school divisions like CRPS, which had to dip into its operational reserves to cover a $332,000 deficit for the 2018-19 school year.
By welcoming international school groups for short stints, the division hopes to plug that hole and so far it appears to be working.
This year alone the division will welcome nearly 100 elementary and high school students, which is expected to generate a profit of $150,000 to $200,000.
To house the groups, the school division recently built a small dormitory in Elizabeth Rummel School, complete with a cafeteria and showers. The food is supplied by the Iron Goat.
According to MacPhee, the facility was used during the Alberta Winter Games in 2014, however, it’s been underutilized since.
To ensure there is enough supervision, each group is also accompanied by chaperones and the division pays a local staff member to stay overnight. CRPS has also budgeted additional janitorial hours to keep the facility clean.
Several members of the division’s administrative team have also pitched in to ensure the facility is ready to welcome students when they arrive, including making beds.
Prior to expanding the program, CRPS had welcomed other international groups, but putting them in hotel rooms became cost prohibitive, which is why CRPS decided to create the dormitory in Elizabeth Rummel.
“This year is the first time we’ve had three groups,” said MacPhee, explaining that two of the three groups are from schools in China that follow the Alberta curriculum, allowing students to earn credits when they visit.
He said the group of 40 elementary students expected to arrive this week will spend mornings separated into classrooms throughout the division accompanied by four substitute teachers with ESL experience.
In the afternoon, the students will regroup to focus on learning English.
“We take teachers off our sub-list who have English as second language experience to work with the teachers in the classroom as well as once they finish their half day,” said MacPhee.
While the group is visiting, the Chinese students will also get the chance to check out some of the tourist attractions the Bow Valley has to offer, such as Lake Minnewanka, Banff Gondola and Glacier Skywalk.
MacPhee stressed the cost to run the program comes directly from fees the division collects to host the students.