|The exterior of Bonaventure Meadows Public School, as it appeared Thursday. The school has seen 20 teachers leave, a number that has raised eyebrows. (Sue Reeve, QMI Agency)
LONDON, Ont. - When the bell rings for the new school year next Tuesday, there'll be a lot of new faces at London's Bonaventure Meadows public school -- and not just pupils.
In what one community member calls a "mass exodus," more than a quarter of last year's teachers at the east-end school have left for other schools.
But while that's left parents scratching their heads, and some speculating something bad was going on at the school which has had a history of schoolyard bullying and staff conflict, school board brass say there's nothing to worry about -- new faces will mean a fresh start.
"These changes are always harder for parents than for kids," said principal Terry Wilkins. "The teachers are excited, their rooms are ready . . . and I think the community will be very excited too."
In an year-end newsletter in June, parents were told 20 of the school's teachers would be leaving.
In fact, 11 will be transferring to new schools this September -- a big number based on board averages.
Across the Thames Valley District school board, with its 178 schools, there were 425 teacher transfers last year. That's an average of 2.4 per school, far below the Bonaventure departures.
"When you've got that many teachers leaving a school, it does send an interesting red flag. It looks like a mass exodus," said Corina Morrison of the London and Area Anti-Bullying Coalition, which has had Bonaventure on its radar.
Morrison said the school has long been one of the top ones generating complaints to her coalition, and after the June newsletter went out she heard from two or three parents who said they were concerned.
QMI Agency has also received calls and emails from parents asking why so many teachers would leave at once.
One teacher said many staff have been requesting transfers for years, due to problems long pre-dating the current principal -- such as disagreements with administration on discipline for behavior problems, personality conflicts.
Despite the fact Wilkins' administration has concentrated on fixing the climate at the school, even signing Bonaventure on last year as one of four Canadian schools in a UNICEF program called Rights Respecting Schools, the climate has remained toxic, the teacher, who did not want to be named, said.
The teacher said the school has had a higher than average ratio of stress leaves the teacher attributed to an unhealthy work environment -- something the teachers' union wouldn't comment on, due to confidentiality concerns.
Finally, last September, the teacher said, union officials offered an "exit plan": Staff could sign on to a transfer list and be movevd at the end of the school year.
The principal was also able to add names of staff he'd like transferred, the teacher said.
Union president Philip Mack said he couldn't comment specifically but said the union follows "due process" in transfers. "There are privacy issues here about why people need change, and the rest of the staff would not know that, and they shouldn't," said Mack.
Of the 20 teachers named on that newsletter last June, 11 are transferring to new schools this September.
Four are returning for long term occasional jobs, two have retired and three have taken maternity leave, said Wilkins.
"There are enough (veteran) staff in the building to carry on our exciting programs . . . and now the new people we are bringing into Bonaventure will just enhance the great things we already have," he said.
With 525 pupils, Bonaventure is a considerably large elementary school.
Asked if the exodus signals an unhealthy school climate, the superintendent who oversees the school, Celine Bourbonnais-MacDonald said "absolutely not." Instead, there'll be a fresh start, she said.
"To me it's fantastic, it's fabulous because we have teachers who have been there and who wanted to leave and now we have some other teachers who really want to be there."