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Vancouver Sun reports on Education Minister's plans to develop special schools
Janet Steffenhagen, Vancouver Sun
Published: Thursday, February 15, 2007

Children with special needs may soon be able to attend "model" schools with expertise in their own learning styles, Education Minister Shirley Bond said Wednesday. Expanding on a vague promise in Tuesday's throne speech, Bond said her government plans to open provincial schools based on best practices in response to parental demands for more choice in public education. Asked for examples, Bond said she envisions a public school that caters to autistic students or possibly one designed for first nations children.

While she doesn't have a template ready, the minister said she intends to move on the plan as quickly as possible. "It's a chance to incubate and innovate," she said, adding that she has discussed the idea with parents while visiting school districts around the province and believes it will satisfy some of the demand for more public-school options.

Although the concept of provincial schools was mentioned in the throne speech, it was so vague that neither the B.C. School Trustees' Association nor the B.C. Teachers' Federation wanted to comment Wednesday.

Bond is also proposing changes for K-12 schools with declining enrolments, and for some that have already closed. For example, schools with extra capacity are being encouraged to establish free drop-in centres for pre-school students in empty classrooms.

The government has already opened 16 of these so-called StrongStart centres and has promised to expand that to as many as 80 during the coming year. It's part of a plan mentioned in the throne speech to expand the mandate of school boards and rename them "boards of education" in recognition of their new responsibilities for preschool education, adult education and community literacy.

Schools being closed because of declining enrolments might also get a new lease on life, the minister said, possibly as community centres, multi-purpose facilities, health-care hubs or senior centres. Public schools are often the heart of a community, but falling enrolments have taken a toll. During the past five years, 139 schools have closed and a further 24 face the same fate. Some of the closed schools still sit empty, some were sold and some have been leased to other interests.

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