City councillor says school meets fire regulations

Bonnie Belec
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Parents say the issue is more about overcrowding and quality of education

St. Peter’s Elementary, on Ashford Drive in Mount Pearl. Parents with students at the school are convinced it is overcrowded. However Mount Pearl city council was told Tuesday the school isn’t over its capacity when it comes to life safety standards after the St. John’s Regional Fire Department took a look at the issue.
 — Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

Parents of students at St. Peter’s Elementary in Mount Pearl are convinced the school is overcrowded, but it isn’t over its capacity when it comes to life safety standards, The Telegram has learned.

Mount Pearl Coun. John Walsh told council during its meeting Tuesday he received a preliminary report from the regional director of fire services and the school is able to safely accommodate the 765 students expected to be enrolled in September.

“They completed an inspection on Friday, and strictly from a life safety perspective, the building is compliant and well within the limits,” said Walsh, who also co-chairs the St. John’s Regional Fire Services committee.

“Having said that, life safety concerns are not the same as having a healthy educational learning environment. As a former educator and knowing the building, the size of St. Peter’s with 750 students, that’s really tight,” he added.

Parents’ concerns came to a head during a meeting in June when about 100 people expressed their frustrations about overcrowding, too few bathrooms, extracurriculum rooms being turned into classrooms and poor results on standardized tests.

Derek Sullivan, chairman of St. Peter’s Elementary School council, said while the fire services determination is reassuring from a life safety perspective, the concerns of parents have more to do with the learning experience and environment at the school and the quality of education.

“From a school council perspective, this was never about fire regulations. It is about classroom overcrowding and staffing cuts. The fact remains that the school is overcrowded. The school was built for a certain number of children and they are now at the top of the classroom ratio,” he said in response to Walsh’s report to council.

Sullivan said as a result of the June meeting, parents suggested the school council look into the idea that the school — originally built for 450 students and now housing around 750 —  may be over capacity when it comes to fire safety regulations.

“I’m sure parents will welcome the fire department has determined life safety is not in jeopardy there, but  the classrooms are packed with children, the desks are wall to wall. It is really bursting at the seams,” he said.

 “When you couple that with the fact (standardized test) scores have dropped significantly and are below the provincial and district numbers, parents are concluding something has to be done,” said Sullivan.

He said the school is simply straining to provide the services children need.

To add fuel to the fire, he said, at a time of increased enrolment the Department of Education has taken away one of  the vice-principal positions by cutting the teacher allocation formula back to pre-2006 levels.

An Eastern School District spokesman said Tuesday it is continuing a review of the school for September and has added an early French Immersion stream at Newtown Elementary.

 Sullivan said the school district’s review has been promised and delayed for a number of years. “There’s not a lot of confidence that, with all the changes happening in the education system, that will be met this year either.”

About half the students who attend St. Peter’s are from Southlands which is part of the city of St. John’s.

Sullivan, in an effort to draw attention to the school council’s  issues, wrote St. John’s and Mount Pearl councils to explain the parents’ concerns.

St. John’s Mayor Dennis O’Keefe touched on the subject at the capital’s council meeting Monday and met Tuesday with Mike Dwyer, the regional director of fire services.

“It’s not an ideal situation,” he said. “It’s severely overcrowded and there has to be a short-term solution which may be rezoning to other schools to accommodate the load, and a long-term solution given growth in the area and Southlands. So obviously there has to be a plan there for a new school,” said O’Keefe.

Both O’Keefe and Walsh, during their council meetings, extended invitations to the rest of council to join the parents of St. Peter’s Friday outside the school at 8 a.m.

Sullivan said they’re getting together to keep the issues fresh and to discuss what has transpired since the June meeting.

Organizations: Regional Fire Services, Department of Education

Geographic location: Mount Pearl, Southlands

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