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EMS students walk out over split timetables

When sisters Chenoa and Talia Hurst-Dand decided to launch a student protest against class schedule changes planned for Earl Marriott Secondary next fall, they figured a small group of people would show up.

In no way did they expect to be surrounded by politicians, school district officials, media and hundreds of their peers – some chanting and holding signs – as was the case Tuesday afternoon at the 15751 16 Ave. school.

“I did not think this was going to work at all,” Chenoa told Peace Arch News at the scene.

The siblings planned the movement to “prove a point” about the negative impact a flexible class schedule will have on families such as theirs.

If the plan goes ahead for next year, Chenoa, in Grade 10, and Talia, Grade 8, will start and end the school day at different times. Not only would they have to reconsider transportation to and from school, but their after-school clubs that currently include all grades – such as Talia’s rugby practices – would either be split up or rescheduled for a time when both juniors and seniors are out of class.

“This new bell schedule is going to separate us all,” Talia said.

The proposed change is to address space shortfalls, and will extend the school day to five blocks from four, with the new schedule to stretch from about 8 a.m to 2 p.m. for juniors, and around 9:15 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. for seniors.

“I just really didn’t like it, so I wanted to do something about it,” Chenoa said.

The sisters created a Facebook page, sent out text messages and put up signs inviting students to walk out of class March 1 at 2 p.m. – more than 30 minutes before the official end of the school day.

“We’re going to try and show the government we have a voice and they need to listen to us,” Talia said.

Principal Peter Johnston said the school was aware of the planned walkout as soon as it went viral, and described it as an important opportunity for students to share their concerns.

“It’s good that the students get a voice,” he said. “I hope the local MLAs who are here see the passion the students have and the pride they take in their school.”

Surrey-White Rock Liberal MLA Gordon Hogg was present after taking a tour of the school that morning to witness firsthand the overcrowding students deal with every day.

“I had been told how busy it was but to experience it was helpful to gain a (better) understanding,” Hogg said, after noting earlier in the day that he’s optimistic more funds will come to Surrey.

Surrey-Newton NDP MLA Harry Bains said he attended to support the students, and took the Liberals to task for not providing capital funding for new Surrey schools since 2005.

“It’s all about misplaced priorities and it’s about a lack of funding,” he said. “It’s sickening that our children have to come out, who should be in their classrooms, to stand up for their education.”

Many students said they left their classes calmly and respectfully at 2 p.m. – some stacking their chairs before leaving – to join the protest, even if they didn’t think it would make a difference.

“It won’t change it for next year but it will show them we only want it to be a short-term fix,” Grade 10 student Chase Lawler said. “We just want to let people know we’re not happy about this and we didn’t get a say.”

Students at Lord Tweedsmuir Secondary – which is to also adopt the flexible class schedule this fall – have been expressing discontent through letters received by PAN Wednesday.

Grade 11 Lord Tweedsmuir student David Hilder said a five-block schedule could create a large gap in the day for students who only have four classes, and put on a strain on teachers.

“It’s likely that at any given time during the day, over 100 unsupervised students, unable to go home during their free time, would be forced to remain in or around the school,” he writes. “Changing the schedule… will cut down on the students’ time for extracurricular activities, not to mention forcing teachers to stay later, which may make some of them more hesitant to volunteer as sports coaches or as the heads of clubs.”

EMS students also expressed concern at Tuesday’s rally the new system will interfere with after-school jobs and lunchtime activities. Grade 10 student Celeste Taylor noted the change will make it difficult for juniors and seniors to interact.

“If they’re split up, the younger can’t learn from the older and the older can’t learn from the younger,” she said.

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