Alberta Education has unveiled its new charter school hub near the University of Calgary, investing up to $118 million to purchase and renovate office spaces expected to house up to 2,000 students in the next few years.
An integral component of Budget 2023’s commitment to what the province has called choice in education, the long-awaited charter hub model will ultimately combine several different charter schools inside the multi-storey SMART Technologies building on Research Road, just west of the University of Calgary campus.
Alberta Education has confirmed a $76-million investment to purchase the building, and charter school officials estimated up to $42 million will be spent over the next two years to renovate and reconfigure office space into classrooms, labs and a school gym.
Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said Wednesday investing in charter schools is a priority for the UCP government as more Alberta families look for unique programming that meets their needs.
“Public charter schools are increasingly popular choices for families, because every family is unique, every child is unique. And our publicly funded system is designed for those choices,” LaGrange said.
One school will focus on science and tech, the other on outdoor education
The hub will open to 800 students this fall, combining expanded programs from its first two tenants, which already have programs running in other parts of Calgary.
STEM Innovation Academy, which focuses on science and technology, will get 500 seats for high school students this fall. And Connect Charter School, an inquiry-based program focusing on outdoor education, will get 300 seats for kids in junior high school.
Officials expect another two to three charter school tenants will be added to the hub over the next few years.
Lisa Davis, co-founder of STEM Innovation, said more students are gravitating to charter schools because of high-quality, innovative programming and unique partnerships with the private sector.
“Families are looking to the future, and they want opportunities where their children can explore and develop confidence in STEM, and see whether it’s something they want to pursue beyond high school.”
Proponents of the charter system cite ‘high interest’ and forthcoming boom in high-school students
While STEM Innovation students at the hub location this fall will be a combination of existing students from other Calgary campuses, as well as new registrants, Davis estimates that about 1,500 are still on waiting lists.
“There is a very high interest in programming. . . and it speaks to the need for more spaces for charter schools.”
But critics of charter schools have said limited access creates deep inequities, and increased government investment only erodes the truly public system that has struggled to match funding with growth.
“This money would have been better spent as an investment in public education, for a system where each and every student is guaranteed access to a school,” said Medeana Moussa, spokeswoman for Support Our Students, which advocates for more than 15,000 families provincewide.
“And no, charter schools are not public schools just because they get public funding,” Moussa added.
“They are not publicly accessible, and they have no oversight from publicly elected officials.”
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But Davis argued that Alberta Education’s long-awaited investment in the charter hub is still much less than the Calgary Board of Education has received over the past several years for new schools and modernizations.
And the opening of a new charter hub, which will ultimately allow for 2,000 student spaces, will also help address an influx of older students that will hit Calgary over the next several years.
“We know there is a boom of high-school students coming. And we haven’t seen a lot of viable solutions to deal with that,” Davis said.
“So why not use the space that already exists and is vacant? It is much less expensive than having to build a new school.”