The Suburban Newspaper, Joel Ceausu

February 11, 2015

Ilana Grostern isn’t messing around.

As a mother of three and a business owner, she doesn’t have the time and is clearly not the type.

The Côte St. Luc resident brought a message to the English Montreal School Board last month, asking them to support her efforts to kick-start the CSL high school project, stillborn despite two recent attempts to breathe life into it.

“This is a parent-led effort,” she told The Suburban, after informing commissioners of a Feb. 17 parents meeting. “This is first about getting people to show their interest, and find volunteers who will step forward to establish a working committee.”

Syd Wise — the commissioner for Côte St. Luc and former principal of the defunct Wagar High School where the new school is planned — has confirmed that only 30 students are needed to kick off a school for 2016-17. “That is a premise we are operating on.”

When asked if two failed attempts indicate that an English public high school isn’t in the cards for Côte St. Luc, Grostern says it’s different this time. “It’s one thing for the EMSB to tell us what they want, what they think, another for parents to speak up. It was made clear to me that if we want a school then it’s up to us to make it happen, to come up with the numbers.”

The last attempt never mustered the numbers, owing in part to a muddled message, frequent changes to the educational project, announcement of placement tests and a preference for top-performing students, amid chaotic public meetings where information directly contradicted previously delivered or even simultaneously publicized material.

But with a parent-driven agenda, says the Ottawa native, there is a chance for a regular English high school, in what may be the community’s last kick at the can. “From my perspective, the last time there was too much talk of all the specialty programs (Jewish heritage, options and a poorly understood sports accommodation program.) The fact is, we have Royal West and Royal Vale, so there doesn’t seem to be a need for more 240-schools in this area.” (240-status schools are restricted public schools with specific orientations that are permitted to select students from the wider population without regard to territory).

“There is more of a need for a true public access high-school,” she says, her own vision inspired by Westmount High School, “one of the best, with increasing enrolment, a French immersion stream, but overall a regular English high school, catering to the largest common denominator.” That’s what should have been on the table last time around she says. “This would have been a no-brainer. But officials always talk about extra programs to attract students, when that clearly is not what parents want. We are getting to the bare bones of the argument, and there is no politics involved. There are parents who want a local high school for our children. That’s it.”

Grostern set up a Facebook page (www.facebook.com/groups/parentsforwagar) for interested parents, drawing more than 170 so far, and many are already engaged in lively discourse about the project, bouncing ideas off like-minded parents, looking for a formula to succeed where the board twice failed.

With a population of 33,000, Côte St. Luc boasts five private Jewish schools; two French and one English public elementary schools; and within the Wagar building – the EMSB’s John Grant, which serves high-school-aged students with mild to severe learning difficulties; Marymount Adults Centre, as well as the board’s cafeteria service and book distribution centre.

No English mainstream public high school.

The discourse about a new school is often coloured by nostalgia for Wagar, which once counted over 1,500 students at its peak, before enrolment dwindled owing to school closures in other districts bringing in new students and prompting many parents to withdraw their kids and opt for the private stream. The result? A large, vastly underused facility on a prime piece of land in Côte St. Luc, valued at almost $30 million but generating no revenue for the city, and the board desperate to fill it.

The parents’ meeting will take place Feb. 17 at 7 p.m. at the Côte St. Luc Aquatic Centre, 5794 Parkhaven.

For information visit http://www.facebook.com/groups/parentsforwagar

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