Before she came to Vancouver, Nimmi Takkar could have been cited by B.C. Liberals as a symbol of the supposed new era of hope and opportunity in Gordon Campbell’s British Columbia.
The daughter of industrious Indian immigrants, she threw herself into high-school life in Mackenzie, a 4,500-person mill town north of Prince George. She was on student council. She volunteered at the local hospital. She attended city-council meetings and added her young voice to political debates. She dreamed of transcending her blue-collar roots and becoming a doctor.
Now, Takkar’s medical aspirations are about all that remains from that middle-class, time-rich life.
Last year, her father lost his job when B.C.’s forestry industry took a hit and Mackenzie’s last mill closed. The family’s house, their primary investment, plummeted in value. Takkar’s parents moved to Vancouver, joining their daughter in hopes of finding work in the big city. So far, nothing has materialized.
The difference between her earlier life as a middle-class student and her current life as a student in relative poverty, Takkar said, is staggering. On top of taking four courses at Vancouver Community College—where tuition is cheapest in the region—the 22-year-old works a 10 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. graveyard shift five nights a week, supervising a call centre. She also waits tables, and dutifully helps her parents fill out literally hundreds of job applications. For school and work, she commutes by transit to Vancouver from Surrey.
“I feel punished,” Takkar told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview April 14, noting she is already deep in student debt.
“Sometimes it [the exhaustion and stress] is physically painful. It impacts my grades. It impacts my enthusiasm, and my curiosity to learn. I wish I had tons of money and my only job was to sit at home and study.”
For the 2005 election, Campbell’s platform set out five “great goals” for B.C. Number one was to “Make B.C. the best educated, most literate jurisdiction on the continent.”
Since 2001, though, B.C. kindergartners have been showing up for school further and further behind; high-school graduation rates have declined slightly; and, while postsecondary participation is at an all-time high nationally, just 49 percent of those from lower-income families in B.C. go at all. Over the same period, B.C.’s child-poverty rate has grown to 21.9 percent, remaining the highest in the country for the past five years.
Several researchers have suggested that Campbell may have missed his “great” education goal in large part because he didn’t address the underlying stresses that make learning such a struggle for many students.
“I could be acing everything. This is more than frustrating,” Takkar said. “Not to get all Marxist, but if you’re not part of the elite, you’re being ripped off. People with money have the luxury of time. It’s the one thing everyone else doesn’t have.”
Adrienne Montani is pissed that the Liberal government didn’t react to a stream of economic research on publicly funded schooling in B.C. It all says the same thing, she said: learning outcomes are directly related to parental incomes. Montani, the provincial coordinator for First Call B.C. Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition, believes that public-policy makers must reduce poverty if they truly want to mine the province’s human capacity.
Considering that one in five B.C. kids is poor, according to First Call’s 2008 Child Poverty Report Card, she doesn’t understand why the Campbell government doesn’t connect the dots.
“They’re ideologically entrenched,” Montani, a former Vancouver school board chair, told the Straight. “It’s the classic thing: stimulate the economy and poverty will disappear. It’s just that it’s not working. We’ve been growing the economy for six years and poverty has gotten worse. I could say something nasty, like they don’t care. But I think they think they care. Their strategies are just not working.”
According to research directly funded by the B.C. Liberal government, the link between poverty and learning outcomes begins at kindergarten. Launched in 2001, UBC’s Early Development Instrument (EDI) surveys ask every kindergarten teacher in B.C. to evaluate each student for “vulnerabilities” with regard to language development, physical health, and social and emotional skills.
Joanne Schroeder, an EDI researcher at UBC, told the Straight that the first wave of studies showed a vulnerability rate of 26 percent. By the end of 2007, it was 29.6 percent. The third wave of studies will be complete this fall—after the May 12 provincial election.
While the Campbell government has pledged to drop the vulnerability rate to 15 percent of students by 2015, Schroeder said, the numbers are still rising.
In part, she blames low parental incomes. “Certainly, we see that on average, children who are in poverty are more likely to be vulnerable,” Schroeder said. “You look at a map of Vancouver, and pretty much the multiple vulnerabilities divides along the East-West border.”
Schroeder also pointed out that children with multiple vulnerabilities in kindergarten are much more likely to score poorly on their Foundation Skills Assessment tests.
As students age, the pattern holds.
The Fraser Institute’s rankings demonstrate the relationship between family income and learning outcomes with stunning simplicity.
In 2009, the bottom three elementary schools in the Lower Mainland—based on FSA results for grades 4 and 7—all have parental incomes far below the median family income for the region ($64,332, according to Statistics Canada). Fleetwood, in Surrey, scored lowest in the region—parents there earn on average $48,900. Next on the list was Maywood in Burnaby ($30,200), followed by Beaver Creek in Surrey ($41,600).
The top two schools sharply exceed the median income: Vancouver’s Crofton House ($117,900) and West Vancouver’s Mulgrave ($182,300).
High school “six-year completion rates” (the proportion of students graduating within six years of entering Grade 8) have declined slightly over the Liberals’ reign. According to the Ministry of Education’s own figures, the completion rate was 79 percent in 2002–03; by 2006–07, it was 80 percent. For 2007-08, it was back down, to 78.7 percent. This is in spite of the ministry’s March 13 press-release claim that per-student funding has increased by $2,107 since 2000–01, to $8,323.
Simply put, the richer your parents, the more likely you are to get a postsecondary education, according to the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation. Of secondary students whose parents earn less than $25,000 a year, 49 percent will go to university or college. For those whose parents earn $100,000 and up, the number is 77 percent—and more than half of those choose university.
For Montani, this is old news. Back in 2006, the Canadian Council on Learning conducted a major literature review for First Call. It found that researcher after researcher connected low incomes to poor education outcomes in B.C. and across Canada. In response, First Call slammed policymakers in a 2007 report for lagging behind the public.
“Changing gender roles, changing family caregiving needs and labour market trends such as the growth of part-time, contract and low-wage/low-benefit employment, as well as the large-scale participation of women in the labour market, require active and supportive policy responses,” the report reads. “Thus far, Canadian policy-makers have left it up to families to negotiate the impact of the changing economy on their child-raising work.”
Two years after the report came out, poverty and education are still in their separate silos, according to Montani.
Schools can effectively pull poorer students into the fold, according to one educator. Back when she was working on a master’s thesis on student success in Toronto, Robin Hemmingsen discovered what her mostly blue-collar students were missing.
“We need to be teaching class-climbing social skills for the 21st century,” she told the Straight, noting that the emphasis on getting poor kids through postsecondary is really about a shift from a farm-and-factory-based economy to an intellectually based one.
“Schools have to take on the role of developing cultural competencies. Some students are getting it at home, through bedtime stories and trips. Many are not.”
At BCIT, where Hemmingsen is the dean of the school of business, she’s instituted a proven program: organize students into study groups; enforce extracurricular activities; beef up their English skills; keep class sizes small.
However, finances are still the number one reason for dropping out, she noted.
“If you need to work, it will impede you,” she said. “For students that don’t have parents who can support them, they’ll have good intentions, then they’ll run out of money.”
If it’s generally accepted that poverty and learning outcomes are linked, the solution certainly is not.
Student financing is key, according to Shamus Reid, the B.C. chair of the Canadian Federation of Students. When the Campbell government lifted the tuition freeze and tuition jumped (30 credits at Emily Carr cost $1,795 in 2001–02 and will cost $3,587.40 in 2009–10), he told the Straight, school became a lot less accessible for students from lower-income homes.
Along with the tuition costs, Reid blames an $8-an-hour minimum wage, a lack of affordable housing, and expensive transportation, including a U-Pass program that he says penalizes poorer students.
Yet in 2007, Statistics Canada’s ongoing Youth in Transition study found that tuition and other postsecondary costs represented a small fraction of why lower-income students don’t attend. Larger factors were parents’ educational levels; school marks when the students were 15; and the quality of their high schools, according to author Marc Frenette.
“Families with more financial resources typically spend more money on books for children, take their children to museums, spend more on daycare in the early years, locate in neighbourhoods with better schools, and provide a more school-oriented home environment from early ages,” Frenette wrote. He also stated, “Although more lower-income youth (13.4%) than higher-income youth (5.9%) reported money as a factor, this difference only accounted for a small proportion of the overall gap.”
Lisa Werring, the provincial coordinator for the nonprofit Breakfast for Learning B.C., believes some of the academic fallout from child poverty can be mitigated with charitable food programs in schools. Her program provides funding for breakfasts and snacks at more than 200 schools. In a 2009 report on the relationship between school nutrition programs and learning, Werring outlines the evidence.
In total, 82 percent of schools reported “improved behaviour” after the breakfast program started; 85 percent saw improved attention spans; and 58 percent saw improved academic performance from the students.
“Poverty is just one reason we see this,” Werring told the Straight, noting that the program is open to all hungry kids, not just those identified as at risk. “We see a lot of both parents working and kids getting themselves out the door in the morning, especially the working poor.”
To First Call’s Montani, the answer is government support for families: raise welfare rates; raise the minimum wage to $10.76 an hour; provide affordable, accessible childcare; and encourage employers to pay living wages.
Living wages, she said, start at $16.75 an hour.
For hospital food services worker Gurbax Chahal, the Campbell government created her low-income situation directly. In 2002, hospital food workers were making $18 an hour plus benefits and pensions as union employees. Then, the B.C. Liberals passed a bill allowing the contracting-out of food, housekeeping, and security services in health-care facilities. Incomes among the mostly female, largely immigrant workers dropped to $13.05 an hour.
In 2003, when the new wage began, Chahal’s kids were two and seven. “If they need anything, they know I’m going to say no,” Chahal told the Straight in a phone interview, explaining the difference five dollars an hour makes. She said that in the past few months, she’s had to stop contributing to their registered education savings plans.
“I feel bad. It’s stressful for all of us. My daughter wants to be a teacher, and my son a computer engineer. For us, more money would mean more education for them.”
The B.C. Liberals’ five “great goals” have been replaced with “Six Pillars for a Strong BC” in the party’s platform for the May 12 election. The 2005 education goal, to make B.C. the most literate, educated jurisdiction in North America, has no equivalent among these planks. Instead, it’s spread between a number of pillars, including “Living within our means” and “Improving and protecting our vital public services”.
A 2009 report by the University of Victoria Students’ Society on its emergency food bank reported a chilling trend.
“Drastic increases in usage, by those not typically considered at risk or in need of assistance, showcase the mainstreaming of student poverty,” according to the report. From 2003 to 2008, the percentage of full-time undergraduate students with no dependants or disability using the food bank rose from 61 percent to 87 percent.
Over the next years, the report predicts, the recession, with its impact on boomers’ investments in RESPs, RRSPs, and real estate, will lead to less parental support for postsecondary students. It also notes that summer work in tourism and forestry will likely dry up.
Let’s hope whoever is elected May 12 can put two and two together, and achieve Campbell’s truly great 2005 goal.