Hamilton’s school board eliminating courses due to provincial funding changes, declining enrolment

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) says it’s withdrawing 173 course offerings for the 2019-20 school year, citing changes in the provincial budget, class sizes and declining enrolment as reasons for the withdrawal.

LISTEN: Bill Kelly talks with HWDSB chair Alex Johnstone about eliminating close to 200 course offerings for 2020

School board chair Alex Johnstone told Global News Radio the change will affect 1,453 secondary school students who had selected one of the courses.

Johnstone says it all boils down to changes made by the provincial government in April, particularly regarding class sizes.

“At that point, we passed several motions, including taking a half a million dollars out of our reserve fund in order to protect our priority courses and ensure that all four pathways within education could be met,” said Johnstone.

“We wanted to ensure that our students continued to have a robust experience. When we look at our courses, there’s some programs that, traditionally, have lower class sizes.”

The programming categories affected the most include studies in humanities and family, the arts, Canada and world studies and physical education.

HWDSB class sizes averaged around 21.4 students for 2018-19, and the projected class size average for 2019-20 is 22.4 students. Johnstone says that out of the 173 courses withdrawn, 115 courses had fewer than 10 students interested in the subject.

However, the HWDSB chair did not downplay their importance despite the low student numbers, saying some of these courses are important in meeting local students’ ambitions in entering a skilled trade career.

“Our specialized high school major programs are continuing, however the result is that we would be offering (fewer) course options,” Johnstone said. “Whereas previously, students may have a greater selection, now they would not. They would need to travel to another campus site in order to access that programming.”

Recognizing the large geographical area the HWDSB has to cover, Johnstone understands travelling such long distances to attend specialty courses is not an option for some, but the school board is hoping to offer online versions in the future.

“We are also looking to offer courses online, but that also has a huge impact as well. Especially when you’re looking at Grade 9 and 10, these are students who already spend enormous amounts of time alone online,” said Johnstone. “It’s important that they continue to have adult mentors that they’re connecting with and that (are) in their day-to-day lives.”

Johnstone says budget discussions are set to take place at the finance and facilities committee, with a proposed budget expected before trustees for final approval on June 17. New provincial government mandates that push class sizes to an average of 28 students have put a strain on finances, which, in turn, led to the elimination of courses, he adds.

“That’s a huge difference, and we’re very concerned about what the local impacts will be moving forward so the reduction of 173 courses this year is the first step,” Johnstone said. “But we’re concerned about what that will look like in the coming years as we continue to move towards the mandated goal of a 28-student class size average.”

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