Principal Lance McDonald stands in the rotunda of the new Abbotsford Senior Secondary School.

Principal Lance McDonald stands in the rotunda of the new Abbotsford Senior Secondary School.

Thousands head back to class in Abbotsford

First day of school includes new high school, old friends and huge numbers at UFV.

A new school year has begun and the University of the Fraser Valley is “really squeezed,” according to Eric Davis, provost and vice-president, academic.

The post-secondary institution will serve approximately 16,000 students this year, the same as last, with as many as 3,000 students on waiting lists.

Davis said UFV is serving about five per cent more students than it is being funded for.

“We have also reached a space capacity. We are operating at close to 130 per cent in terms of utilization of space in the Abbotsford campus. So we are really, really squeezed,” he said.

While it is a challenge to try to meet the needs of Valley students, Davis said it is better to have this problem, rather than the opposite.

The high demand for courses has forced the university to close applications for most programs.

Davis said a lack of growth funding from the province and increased costs to run the university means UFV has to become more entrepreneurial about raising funds.

“At some point we either find new sources of revenue or we have to get smaller.”

He said finding cost efficiencies can only go so far. Eventually, cutting programs could become a possibility.

“Nobody wants to get smaller.”

About 20 years ago, 80 per cent of the institution’s funding came from the provincial government. That amount has shrunk to about 50 per cent.

Davis said the Fraser Valley is the fastest growing region in the province, and has a high demand for post-secondary education.

More than 70 per cent of Valley students choose UFV.

“We are the institution of choice.”

In Abbotsford School District 34, close to 19,000 students and 1,200 full-time teachers will be heading to classrooms.

“It’s that time of the year for anticipation, excitement and busyness,” said Kevin Godden, school superintendent.

He said the district has experienced “relatively flat enrolment” for the last five years.

Kindergarten numbers will be slightly up, between five and 10 per cent more than the previous year.

Official numbers will not be known for up to two weeks.

In September of 2011, there were 18,291 students enrolled. That number grew to 18,358 by April 2012.

Godden said the biggest challenge facing the district is not new enrolment, but keeping students interested and engaged, especially in Grade 10 and 11.

“There is a direct correlation between attendance and student engagement. And when they’re engaged, they’ll run to school,” he said.

Technology plays a key role in capturing students’ interest.

“We are on a bold plan to outfit every school with the technology to allow them to, in a dynamic way, access the Internet and get information.”

The school year also marks the opening of the newly constructed Abbotsford Senior.

The $45-million renovation and replacement project is ready to accept students today, although construction crews will still be working on some finishing touches for several more weeks.

Abbotsford principal Lance McDonald said he expects the 900 students will have a little anxiety, but also a “ton of excitement” when they enter the new school. Teachers could experience the same thing.

“We just don’t know all the curve balls that will be thrown our way.  There will be all the unknowns that will cause the first week to be exciting and challenging and sort of take it a day or a week at a time because we are still in a construction zone.”

Last-minute touch-ups, including painting and sidewalk work, along with the new parking lot and turf field, still have to be completed. Parking should be ready by the end of October and the field will likely not be used until the end of the year.

A former Abbotsford Senior grad, the principal said the new design is fitting for a school with such a strong history.

He said the openness concept – whether it be the rotunda or the amount of glass used that allows people to walk by and see kids in a shop working – creates a good learning atmosphere.

He maintains it’s better than the traditional “learn in a box” concept.