School closure left a big gap in Port Moody's community
Reece Harding’s neighbourhood hasn’t been the same since the local school went.
Nestled on the slopes of Burnaby Mountain and offering magnificent views of Burrard Inlet, College Park elementary in Port Moody used to thrum with life on school days. Many residents would be out walking with their kids and swapping stories on the way to and from school, the place that served as the focal point of the community.
When the K-5 school closed down more than three years ago, it left a void. “The community lost its heartbeat,” Harding told the Georgia Straight at his home.
Harding’s experience could be replicated in as many as five East Vancouver neighbourhoods in 2011. Declining enrollment is one of the main reasons the Vancouver board of education is considering closing five elementary schools at the end of the school year.
In his living room, Harding recalled hearing the sounds of children running down the street or playing games at the school playground a short block away. According to the 45-year-old father of two girls, the school was all the College Park neighbourhood had. The suburban community doesn’t have a mall, a shopping centre, or even a local café.
“The school used to be the place where people would gather,” Harding said with sadness in his voice. “They’d talk; they’d walk. That’s where kids and all their families got to know each other. Grandparents would be there. Extended families would be there. A lot of people would be at the school. Now that the school is gone, the community does not have a central meeting place anymore. So there’s no”¦ There just isn’t anything anymore.”
Harding, a lawyer who specializes in municipal law, also recalled the “walking school buses”.
“It’s where the house the furthest away from school, that parent will start out with their kid, and they’ll pick up the next parent and kid on the way that’s the next furthest away, and you keep going and going, and by the time you get to here up to the block there,” Harding said, pointing in the direction of the school, “you might have 50 kids and 50 parents. That’s gone.”
Now parents drive their children to other schools.
Harding’s younger daughter was in Grade 4 when School District No. 43, which covers the Tri-Cities (Port Coquitlam, Coquitlam, and Port Moody) and the villages of Anmore and Belcarra, started public consultations in 2006 regarding the possible closure of eight schools.
The now-defunct College Park elementary school had about 130 students. According to Harding, enrollment at the time was at about 85 percent of capacity. The school was included in the list of those that could be closed so that other schools could be filled up.
Faced with declining enrollment, trustees voted in 2007 to close down five schools in the district, effective that year.
College Park kids were meant to transfer to Seaview elementary school, about a kilometre-and-a-half away. Harding’s daughter went to Glenayre, which is about four kilometres away. Other kids ended up in about a dozen different schools, he said. Many children, like Harding’s daughter, lost friends.
The Port Moody resident recalled that the neighbourhood school sat empty for more than a year until it was leased to a centre serving kids with learning disabilities. Local residents don’t go there anymore.
“It’s not the same life,” Harding said, although he added that he’s glad the new facility is helping learning-challenged kids. “It doesn’t have the same noise. It doesn’t have the same vibrancy. It doesn’t have the same sense of community.”
Meanwhile, shutting down the five Vancouver schools will save that district only $1.4 million in annual expenses. Noel Herron, a former Vancouver principal and education trustee, pointed out that the savings to be made from the closures are minimal and that the damage done to communities would be irreparable.
“Once it’s done, there’s a finality to it,” Herron told the Straight after he and more than 200 people, mostly parents and students, held a rally outside the constituency office of Premier Gordon Campbell on November 12.
A Vancouver school board staff report released in October noted that although enrollment has declined in the city in the past decade, “elementary enrollment is projected to flatten out over the next three years, and then increase by 2013”.
“Recent residential developments such as False Creek North, International Village, and UBC have shown that renewed housing at higher densities have attracted a significant school-age population,” the report stated. “As areas under current redevelopment and City of Vancouver planning programs are implemented over the next decade, it is anticipated that these new multi-family residential areas will also attract new families.”
There are 51,901 elementary and high-school students enrolled for the 2010–2011 school year. According to the report, enrollment in Vancouver public schools peaked in 1997 at 57,575 students.
Back in College Park, Harding recalled that when the school was open, he used to tell his wife he’d never want their family to leave the area. He said he’s been thinking otherwise lately because the neighbourhood doesn’t feel as alive these days.