Citing unprecedented growth, elementary school in London, Ont., caps enrolment

An elementary school in the booming southwestern Ontario city of London moved to cap enrolment this week, as the local school board grapples with how best to keep up with rapid population growth.

The Thames Valley District School Board says students registered for White Oaks Public School in London, Ont., after June 30 will be designated to Nicholas Wilson Public School, about two kilometres away.

The board's education director says the school's enrolment has almost doubled over recent years to around 1,000 students.

"We were certainly anticipating growth, but certainly not this rapidly and not this amount of kids," said Mark Fisher.

The board says transportation will be provided to the other school and the decision has so far affected 25 students.

The London region is one of the fastest growing urban centres in Canada, with its population increasing by 10 per cent between 2016 and 2021, to 543,551. According to Statistics Canada, that compares to the national average of 5.2 per cent.

An association representing Ontario public school boards has raised the issue of rapid population growth with Education Minister Stephen Lecce, notably in the context of the province's target to build 1.5 million new homes by 2031.

In a statement Tuesday, the president of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association said the government needs to ensure approval timelines for new school builds, additions and retrofits are announced regularly and predictably.

"Many of our member boards are looking to the Ministry of Education for approval to build new schools to accommodate the growing number of families," said Cathy Abraham.

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for Lecce said the government is taking action to build schools faster.

"That is exactly why we passed the Better Schools and Student Outcomes Act — to expedite completion of schools across the province," said Justin Saunders.

"Since 2018, our government has invested over $94 million across London schools, creating 3,100 new pupil spaces. Ontario has over 100 active school construction projects underway, with eight projects in London alone."

Enrolment at the Thames Valley District School Board, meanwhile, has spiked by 6,000 students over the past four years to 85,000, Fisher says. Another four to five schools could face enrolment caps over the next year, he said.

"We have a number of schools that we have on our watch list, potentially reaching their upper capacity," he said.

Fisher said rapid growth was a "good problem to have," but required the board to take a number of steps to prepare. He said the board is conducting reviews of its attendance areas to ensure equitable distribution across its schools. At the same time, it will ramp up its requests to the province to fund new schools, he said.

Fisher said the province has already approved funding for four new schools set to open over the next two to three years, to accommodate about 4,000 students. That includes a $20.7-million elementary school scheduled to open in September 2025 in southwest London, in the same area as White Oaks.

But in a sign of the rapid growth in the area, Fisher said the board will be asking the ministry to approve funds for another school in the same area in the next funding round.

"The growth in this area post-pandemic has just really gone off the rails," said Fisher.

In total, he said the board anticipates asking the ministry for another six to eight new schools in the next capital funding round. Traditionally, he said, the timeline for approval has taken about four to five years, in part due to the struggles to acquire land.

While Fisher said he's been pleased with the number of approvals handed down by the education minister, he would like to see the timeline condensed to two to three years.

"I think what we would need is his continued attention to this area and anything he can do in terms of efficiencies to speed the process up from approval to completion," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 22, 2023.

Jordan Omstead, The Canadian Press