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After years of sinking enrolment, N.S. suddenly faces a new problem: Too many students

As Nova Scotia's population surges, a public education system that was once closing schools due to declining enrolment is now seeing some classrooms at capacity. Teachers are grappling with an influx of diverse students, many of whom don't speak much English.

Halifax regional centre has added 8,000 students in the last five years

Three young students are shown writing at desk. The boy closest to the front is in a wheelchair.

This story is part of an ongoing CBC Nova Scotia series examining how the province is managing its record-setting population boom after decades of limited growth.


There are times that Crystal Ellingsen's classroom is so full, she barely has room to walk between the desks.

The substitute teacher in the Halifax Regional Centre for Education said it's an increasingly familiar scene, as more classes in Nova Scotia meet or exceed mandated provincial caps on the number of students.

"A lot of kids are falling through the cracks," said Ellingsen, who teaches primary to Grade 12. "If there's 28 kids in a class, there's no way a teacher can give everybody what they need."

It's just one of the challenges the province is facing as a result of its population growth, which over the past year has been the fastest on record since 1951.

An education system that was once closing schools due to declining enrolment is now seeing some classrooms at capacity, with hundreds of students in portables and modular buildings. Teachers are also grappling with an influx of diverse students, many of whom don't speak much English.

The Halifax regional centre has added 8,000 students to its schools in the last five years alone — enough to fill 300 classrooms, according to its regional executive director. This year, enrolment is expected to exceed 58,000 students over 135 schools.

The rapid growth has meant a need for new schools, six of which are either newly built, under construction or slated to open September 2024.

It's part of the provincial government's five-year, $1-billion capital plan to meet increasing enrolment across the province.

The plan includes adding modular classrooms to help alleviate the short-term pressures of rapid population growth. Education officials are also reconfiguring school grade levels and combining classrooms.

In the Halifax area, there are 141 modular classrooms, which differ from portables in that they can be connected to schools by a hallway, have washrooms, and can be easily added onto or moved to a new location as needs change.

The province also has mandated classroom caps, which vary by grade level. The lowest grade levels have a "hard cap" — the stated cap plus two — of 22 students, while the highest grade levels have a hard cap of 32.

Last school year, at least 28 classrooms in the Halifax school system exceeded caps, but the number may actually be higher, since the caps are in place by Sept. 30 and don't account for students who arrive in classrooms after that date.

Ellingsen feels that the caps are set too high. She said teachers struggle to give every student the attention they need, and the ones who suffer are often the most quiet and reserved.

"As you get more and more kids into those classrooms, more and more kids are falling behind," said Ellingsen, who lives in the Spryfield area and has three kids, ages nine, 13 and 17.

"Without the student-teacher ratio being more reasonable, nobody's set up to win…. Some will succeed no matter what. They just have natural aptitudes. It's all those kids in the middle that I think are getting lost."

Nova Scotia Education Minister Becky Druhan said the province continues to add more teaching positions to help keep class sizes lower, noting more than 100 new classroom teachers were hired throughout the province last year, bringing the total number up to about 10,000.

Druhan said the government has struck a recruitment and retention working group to look at attracting more staff and keep them from leaving the field.

She pointed to a March 2022 change in policy that allows for bachelor of education students to receive a temporary teacher's licence to work as a substitute as one initiative the working group has established to help alleviate pressures on the system.

But Ryan Lutes, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, wants to see the development of a long-term teacher recruitment and retention strategy.

He said teachers and support staff, such as guidance counselors, are often being pulled from their primary positions to cover classrooms when a teacher is off.

"That weighs heavily on them, that they can't do their primary job," said Lutes. "Over the last 20 years, teaching has become harder, kids and societies more complicated … and so that's made being a teacher and being in schools just a little bit more difficult, and I think that's having an effect on recruitment and retention."

Language barriers

A huge driver of Nova Scotia's population growth is immigration, and schools are filling up with children from across the globe who speak languages other than English or French.

Lutes said while that increase in diversity has instilled a richness to the province's schools, it has also posed challenges.

He describes some teachers having to use Google Translate to communicate with students — or even using another student who speaks that language as a translator.

"I think that shows the holes in the system that were here before this increase in immigration and increased population growth, but now those gaps are just getting worse," said Lutes, adding that more English as a second language (ESL) teachers need to be hired across the province.

Steve Gallagher, the executive director of the Halifax school system, conceded that he couldn't "speak concretely" about what is being done to further support students who have unique language needs and their teachers.

"At this stage, we're still exploring different ways to support students. We do have a model that's worked for a number of years here involving ESL teachers and great partnerships with some organizations in the city," said Gallagher.

"But, as always, we'll respond to student needs the best way that we can."

Druhan said every ESL student is connected with a navigator when they first arrive, and ESL teachers provide classroom teachers with basic advice and support. She said 60 ESL teachers have been hired in the last few years, bringing the total number up to around 100 across the province.

Rural corners of Nova Scotia are also becoming more diverse.

The South Shore Regional Centre for Education went from having 50 ESL students two years ago to 150 this year.

The school district's executive director, Nancy Pynch-Worthylake, said there are six ESL teachers that service the entire centre, which spans from Mahone Bay to Liverpool along the southern coast but also includes many inland communities, from New Germany to Caledonia.

"One-hundred-and-fifty students spread across 13 grade levels over two counties makes it a challenge for our teachers," said Pynch-Worthylake.

"It's less the question of [the number of ESL teachers], because we are responsive to that, then it is accommodating the travel time."

Druhan added the government has expanded its virtual translation services to help those in rural areas.

"Folks can access those services when and where they need them, and so that'll be one of the variety of ways in which we support folks who need those services," she said.

Growth extends to rural Nova Scotia

Across the province, there were 9,738 more students in public schools in the 2022-23 school year than in 2014-15, according to the Nova Scotia government.

And while the majority of those students were in the Halifax area, most regional centres experienced at least some growth during that time frame, and even modest growth marks an improvement for rural schools that were once being reviewed for viability.

A 2011 report compiled by education expert Ben Levin called for school closures and a reduction in the number of teaching assistants amid declining enrolments.

It's a much different story today.

Take Cape Breton, for example. The island's population started to grow in 2019 after 20 years of decline.

As new residents flock to the town of New Waterford, four modular classrooms are being installed at Greenfield Elementary School while officials mull more permanent solutions.

Gallagher and others in the education field noted a new trend associated with the province's growth: more students are arriving throughout the school year.

In the Halifax region, about 1,000 students arrived in schools between Sept. 30, 2022 and May 1, 2023.

"Traditionally we don't grow by anywhere near that," said Gallagher. "It isn't something that we were necessarily planning for because we hadn't seen it before. So there is a challenge in managing the rate of growth, no question."

'Just treading water'

And there is another unexpected change related to population growth and the housing crisis: apartment buildings are now yielding many more students, said Gallagher.

"In large cities, apartment buildings are also family units and the yield goes up dramatically, and we are now seeing that in Halifax," he said.

"Density is increasing and that changes our calculations in terms of how many students will be in a given school."

One thing's for sure — the boom is not slowing down, said Gallagher.

He noted that younger families — particularly from provinces like Ontario — are flocking to Nova Scotia in search of a slower pace of life.

"It's tremendous for us as a city and as a province, but it's student growth that will be with us for the next five plus years," he said. "The overall number that we're swelling to, it's not going to diminish any time soon."

For Ellingsen, that means policy makers need to get ahead of the growth.

"We're just treading water at this point," she said.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aly Thomson

Reporter/Editor

Aly Thomson is an award-winning journalist based in Halifax who loves helping the people of her home province tell their stories. She is particularly interested in issues surrounding justice, education and the entertainment industry. You can email her with tips and feedback at aly.thomson@cbc.ca.

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