Langley School District superintendent Gord Stewart (left) and Board of Education chair Rob McFarlane discussed a number of school-related topics as they sat down to talk with the Times at the close of 2016.

Plenty of challenges, opportunities in one of B.C’s fastest growing districts

More than 650 new students are attending Langley schools this year

The Langley school district is one of the fastest growing in B.C.

This year, Langley’s student population broke the 20,000 mark for the first time in its history. And, this school year alone, more than 650 new students arrived in the district — enough to fill an entire middle school.

The design of a new high school in Willoughby is underway and architects are working on how the revamped Langley Secondary will look. The first phase of construction will get underway this summer.

All the while, the district juggles ever-growing enrolment, a changing curriculum and ensuring that older facilities are allocated the right resources. The District Leadership Team is also working to make sure teachers are supported through the changes that are coming with the new curriculum, including changes to report cards.

Growth and change have created a unique set of challenges for the district, and so the Times sat down with the Langley superintendent of schools, Gord Stewart, and board of education chair, Rob McFarlane, to discuss what the education landscape will look like in Langley in the coming years.

Opportunities & Challenges

Being one of B.C.’s fastest growing districts presents both opportunities and challenges, McFarlane and Stewart said.

But both men agree, there are more opportunities than there are challenges.

“The most important thing to mention is that it is a really good time to be a student.

The opportunities and flexible learning … I wish education looked like it does now when I was going to school,” said Stewart.

As for new school funding, Langley has done well recently.

“We are very fortunate with a provincial government that is supporting our enrolment growth by helping provide facilities to manage that growth,” said Stewart.

New High School

A new $55 million high school will open in 2019/2020 near Mountain Secondary, and will have capacity for 1,500 students. It is being designed with the new curriculum in mind.

“We are in the design phase, and should be able to release the school’s look in spring,” said Stewart.

The learning spaces in the new high school will look a lot different than traditional classes, with more open rooms for collaborative learning, few desks, wider hallways for learning, more open foyers to be used for learning and for displaying student work and much more glass, they said.

“The days of rows of desks, and a teacher’s desk in front are coming to an end and that’s a good thing,” said Stewart.

Lecture-based learning, where students were to sit in their desks for the duration of a class is being phased out.

Instead, students will work collaboratively and have spaces to work quietly by themselves.

“I think collaborative learning and fostering students’ creativity and finding out what each of them is passionate about helps get them and keep them engaged,” he said.

“It’s exciting times in education.”

When the new high school opens, Mountain Secondary will be converted to a middle school, which will relieve pressure on the surrounding schools in Willoughby, and reduce the district’s reliance on portables.

The announcement last September by the provincial government, also earmarked $7.2 million to acquire land for a new elementary school in northeast Latimer and spend $4.7 million to expand RC Garnett Elementary by adding a second storey to the school.

In the last 10 years, enrolment in the Willoughby slope area has increased by nine per cent, and is forecasted to grow by over 40 per cent in the next 10 years.

Time to Rebuild

Reconstruction of Langley’s oldest high school, LSS, will get underway this summer, with an expected completion date of  2020/21. The construction will go over the summer months each year to minimize disruption to learning.

“We are really pleased with the designs we’ve seen so far. There is some great learning opportunities that are going to be happening there,” said McFarlane.

Empty Schools Sold

Three out of four schools put up for sale have been sold, said the pair.

“We benefited from the hot real estate market. It leaves us in a good position,” said McFarlane.

The revenue from the sales will go toward the costs of building the high school and acquiring land for a future elementary schools.

“We have met our financial obligation to the provincial government to help fund future schools,” said Stewart.

Meeting in the Middle

Beginning this month, the Langley School District Leadership team will go to the three communities currently without middle schools — Walnut Grove, the D.W. Poppy neighborhood and Brookswood.

There will be 15 meetings in total, said Stewart.

“We are having this conversation because we want everyone’s children to have the opportunities middle school education offers,” said Stewart. “It’s a journey, because each community is unique and has different facilities.”

Smaller Classes

The Supreme Court of Canada recently ruled that class size and composition will return to pre-2002 staffing levels.

It will mean smaller class sizes and more teachers being hired.

Last week,  Stewart said that will likely mean between 35 and 40 new teachers for Langley schools.

“It’s a good time to go into teaching, that we know.”

Both men agree that the district and the unions work well together and all have a common goal — creating the best education environment for students and teachers.

The environment in the district is so positive that they say many graduates of the teaching program come work in the very schools they were taught in.

Financial Stability

Langley School District is in good financial standing, but always remembers its “ugly past,” said McFarlane.

“The ugly days were ugly,” he said.

“But because the district went through tough times, it’s taught us so much — to be careful, to be thorough.”

The district worked its way out of a $13 million deficit and now has a surplus budget.

Full credit goes to secretary treasurer David Green and his team for putting the district back in the black, said Stewart.

While other school districts are struggling for various reasons, Langley is a positive and supportive environment to be in, with revenue for resources, and management looking for input from teachers and staff, he added.

They have set funds aside for new furniture for classrooms (like bean bags) and provided new kits to help foster outdoor learning.

“We are planning for today, but we are also trying to envision what learning will look like 10 to 20 years from now and plan for that flexibility of change,” Stewart said