The Montreal Gazette – By Janet Bagnall, Gazette education reporter May 20, 2013 6:06 PM

MONTREAL — The EMSB plans to open a public high school in a city that has been without one since Wagar school closed in 2005

It was standing-room-only at this month’s inaugural meeting for students, and their parents, interested in attending Wallenberg Academy — a hauntingly named Côte-St-Luc public high school that for now exists only on PowerPoint.

The future school has been named after Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who saved as many as 100,000 Hungarian Jews during the Second World War and who was last seen at Moscow’s notorious Lubyanka prison.

Mona Weinstock, mother of four children — 16-year-old twin boys, their 12-year-old brother and a 7-year-old daughter — was at the May 8 meeting to learn more about what kind of new high school the English Montreal School Board intends to offer families in or near Côte-St-Luc, a predominantly Jewish borough.

So far, the Weinstock children have attended school at JPPS (Jewish Peoples and Peretz School) and, in the public system, Royal West Academy, Westmount High School and Edinburgh and Elizabeth Ballantyne elementary schools.

Looking around at the crowd of about 200 people, Weinstock said, “I see a lot of parents here whose kids are in the Jewish private system.”

Weinstock would like an option that is close to home; she’d like there to be Jewish heritage content; and she wants a public school. With four children, the fees involved in a private education impose too high a financial burden, she said. She also thinks her children would be better prepared for life in Quebec with more emphasis on French and less on Yiddish or Hebrew.

“If Bill 14 passes, there’ll be more and more French proficiency exams,” she said. “You have to keep up.” Bill 14, a proposed law brought in by the Parti Québécois government to increase the presence of French in school and in the workplace, would bring in mandatory French proficiency tests for high school and CEGEP students.

In this one, small, mid-week meeting, you could see the forces buffeting Quebec’s schools, public and private, with or without religious or cultural content. Public boards like the EMSB have been struggling to retain or even add to their student population. In 2011, of the board’s 1,727 Grade 6 graduates, 235 left for the private system; in 2012, the figures were 1,684 and 261. (This is on par with an overall shift from public to private at the secondary level in the province: More than 125,000 students go to private school across Quebec, with 6.7 per cent of elementary school students attending private school, and 19.6 per cent doing so at the secondary level.

With the proposed creation of Wallenberg Academy, the EMSB is taking steps to get some of those students back. But the question is whether there are enough families like the Weinstocks to bring the Wallenberg Academy to life in 2014. EMSB officials told the May 8 meeting that a minimum of 60 students must sign up for Grade 7 to get the school underway, and they’d prefer 100.

Demographic change enters into the equation. According to Jack Jedwab, executive director of the Association for Canadian Studies, Montreal’s Jewish population decreased by about 5,500 between 2001 and 2011, from 88,765 to 83,200. There was a drop of about 1,000 in the 14-and-under age group, down to 16,055. Within that age group, 3,585 youngsters claimed Yiddish as their mother tongue, suggesting, said Jedwab, that this is a group likely to be interested only in Orthodox Jewish schooling, not schools in the public school system.

Côte-St-Luc, home to a sizable English-speaking Jewish population, is also becoming more francophone, said Mordechai Antal, president of the Federation of Teachers of Jewish Schools.

“The Jewish system is no different from the English system overall,” he said. “The population of kids who are eligible for English education has declined and within the Jewish school system, because of immigration, the population has also shifted from English to French with French Jewish day schools seeing increases in enrolment.”

There has not been a public high school in Côte-St-Luc since 2005 when Wagar High School closed, a victim of declining enrolment. But at the May 8 meeting, board officials, including former Wagar principal and current EMSB school commissioner Syd Wise, told parents they believe the support is there for a new public school. The new school would condense the regular province-wide curriculum to allow most of the afternoon free to pursue sports, heritage or music concentrations. Which sports and what heritage would be determined by the students who sign up for Grade 7.

The May 8 meeting was just the latest in a series of temperature-takings since 2005 in which the EMSB has held out the prospect of restarting Wagar High School. EMSB’s gamble may rely, to some extent, on the troubles of Bialik High School, the board’s closest competitor for Côte St-Luc students. Bialik, a nearby private school, has been experiencing a decline in enrolment, was in merger talks two years ago with United Talmud Torahs/Herzliah High School. The talks led nowhere.

Glenn Nashen, a municipal councillor with Côte-St-Luc whose three children attend private Jewish schools, defended Bialik’s viability.

“JPPS-Bialik is a community Jewish school,” he said. As for a decline in enrolment, Nashen said, “It’s cyclical. In (Bialik’s) heyday, there were four streams (classes per grade level), now there are two and in a couple of years when my son reaches Grade 1, there may be just one, but that was the same as when I started.”

Nashen added, “They’re doing their best to make it economically accessible and they’re offering an advanced French program.”

Twitter: @JanetBagnall

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