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Excitement surrounds back-to-school plans

It's back to classrooms, computers, books and bulletin boards. Students, teachers and education support staff are already busily engaged in the new academic year, or are about to be very soon.
Students register for another year at the Estevan Comprehensive School. Classes start up tomorrow throughout the Energy City.

It's back to classrooms, computers, books and bulletin boards. Students, teachers and education support staff are already busily engaged in the new academic year, or are about to be very soon.Of course with the arrival of every new school year, there is an air of excitement surrounding the facilities as students get caught up on the life and times of their friends while teachers and others eagerly meet and greet new arrivals within their fold. For the teachers in the South East Cornerstone School Division, there will be at least 32 newcomers to welcome into their ranks. Orientation sessions have already begun and according to director Marc Casavant, there will be a few occasions during the course of the year when these rookie educators will be provided an opportunity to get to know their fellow teachers and the Cornerstone system even better. "We not only need to recruit good new teachers, but we also want to keep them," said Casavant. With former Estevan principal Gord Husband now serving as a human resources administrator for the division, Casavant said he expected that the comfort level will improve. Who won't be so comfortable however, will be Cornerstone trustees who might have to look at the possibility of putting a few schools under review for possible closure within a year or two. It's an unpleasant task, but somebody has to do it and Estevan area trustee Pam Currie said she's prepared to move that agenda forward if it's deemed necessary.But there is a big rider attached. "Personally, I'm not in favour of putting any of our schools under review this year. Keeping education close to the kids is something I like," said the veteran trustee, referring to the fact that some schools with lower enrolments have advantages over the larger facilities on several fronts. "But we have a new guideline from the Education Ministry that tells us we must look at these schools if they don't meet the minimum attendance threshold and we would want to comply with these guidelines, I would think," said Currie. Casavant said there could be a few schools that won't meet the new criteria, but he cautioned that it would be regrettable if they moved too quickly on the matter. He pointed out, as an example, the recent situation at Ogema School where the minimum enrolment standards weren't being met a year ago. "They were at 65 students and weren't meeting the criteria, but this year, their anticipated enrolment is for well over 100. If the division had reacted too quickly, there would have been a missed opportunity," he said. Casavant said however, that it's difficult to read the minds of parents and he said he knows "they don't make decisions lightly as to where they're going to send their children and so we want to support them in their choices."The trustees will have until October to decide whether they are going to place any school under a review process. When it comes to teaching staff, the 32 vacant positions have been filled. More than half the vacancies came about due to retirements, Casavant said. Cornerstone has a teaching staff of over 500 for the more than 7,800 students who are expected to be enrolled this year in the 38 schools, including a brand new school in Oxbow. The only problem on that front is the fact that finding residential accommodations has become a challenge for some."Bus drivers, substitute teachers, education assistants these are positions that are always a challenge to fill, especially in the smaller communities, so we hope that with a new human resources person and plan in place, we'll relieve some of those pressures," Casavant said. As far as student enrolments are concerned, Casavant said "from an optimistic point of view and in light of what is going on around us, I'd be disappointed if we didn't see an increase again this year."Cornerstone's student population increased modestly by about 30 to 35 last year. Casavant feels a similar hike or more, could be recorded this year. Casavant said he, and others on the administrative and financial team, are eagerly awaiting the provincial government's decisions regarding funding for school divisions under the new mandate. He said they especially want to know how funding is going to be handled for major capital projects such as the anticipated renovation and expansion at the Weyburn Comprehensive School which will welcome junior high school students within the next three years. With an annual budget now in excess of $91 million, Cornerstone has moved into a new realm and the trustees and management want to know whether they will retain autonomy on the decision-making fronts, or whether they will be subverted by a provincial-wide system. "There are many uncertainties, including the funding models and whether we'll get a big bag of money to spend as we see fit, or get a bunch of smaller envelopes telling us how much, when, and how we can spend the money. But in the meantime, I'm getting excited about the new direction and vision we have as a school division. We have identified areas we felt we wanted and needed to pursue and we have a plan in place to monitor where we're going after initiating the changes that were needed," Casavant said. In the Holy Family Roman Catholic Separate School Division, there are also significant changes underway, including the addition of a new school and students and staff from the former Notre Dame school district. Attempts to contact Holy Family's director of education, Shelley Rowein, their official spokeswoman, prior to press deadline were unsuccessful.