Plunging registration due to cross-boundary enrollment comes despite the rise in the number of school-age children in the area.
All parents want the best for their children, and Cheryl Davis is no different.
She’s the chair of the parent advisory council at her Grade 11 son’s school, David Thompson secondary. As well, she has made multiple requests to place her son—who has attended schools on both the East Side and West Side of Vancouver—in what she feels is the best school on the West Side. But so far Davis has been unsuccessful.
“There’s still strong encouragement [for students] to be confined to their neighbourhood schools,” she said in a phone interview. “When the enrollment policy changed [to allow more choice], I didn’t find it materially helped.”
Davis is not alone. According to former Vancouver school trustee Andrea Reimer, since the provincial government relaxed school enrollment boundaries, many parents have applied for their children to attend schools outside their neighbourhood—and the number of these so-called cross-boundary enrollments may be reflected in shrinking enrollments in some of Vancouver’s schools, especially those on the East Side.
“Information I received as a school trustee didn’t add up,” she said during an interview. “We asked staff to provide a report to show the impacts [of school-choice legislation] and found”¦numbers [of students] were shrinking, even though numbers of kids in the population were rising.”
Punching in stats matching Vancouver’s school-aged population with public-school enrollment levels, Reimer discovered that the number of students seemed to be dropping. She found that from 1996 to 2001, although the total number of school-aged children and youth (ages 6 to 18) living in the city increased by 5.1 percent (using numbers from a “social indicators” report from the City of Vancouver’s social planning department and the BC Stats Web site), public-school enrollment declined by approximately 1.9 percent (according to provincial Ministry of Education and Vancouver school board “ready reference” documents).
These figures are corroborated across the province by the Ministry of Education. In a February 2, 2007, news release, the ministry stated that B.C. enrollment has declined by some 42,500 students since 2000-01 and is projected to decline by another 30,000 students over the next five years. This school year alone, the student population dropped by 12,300 students, and declining enrollment is expected to continue in B.C. until 2015.
Other members of Vancouver’s education community have anecdotally noticed this drop in enrollment. Current NPA school trustee Don Lee said in a phone interview that some 1,030 fewer students enrolled in Vancouver’s public schools this year, with the biggest drop at the kindergarten level. Steve Baker, an executive member of the Vancouver District Parent Advisory Council, pointed out that actual student enrollment across the district in the past year was nine percent less than projected.
“September enrollment was so far off”¦[schools] had to reassess staffing in October,” said Baker in a phone interview. “DPAC’s goal is to ensure the board has projections that won’t cause disruption in schools once the school year starts.”
Reimer said that enrollment in East Side schools has dropped sharply over the past few years. However, her analysis found that, populationwise, the southeast part of Vancouver is the fastest-growing area for children and youth, followed by the northeast, the West End, and the West Side.
She discovered that 20 percent of East Side school-aged youth seem to be leaving their community to attend school, compared to 3.5 percent on the West Side.
Trustee Lee also noted that over the years, East Side schools have seen higher enrollment drops than those on the West Side. He pointed to John Oliver, a secondary school that dropped from 2,400 students to fewer than 1,200, and one East Side elementary school that now has only 60 students. The problem, in terms of delivering educational services, is that with funding directly linked to student numbers, fewer students means less funding—and can result in school closures. In B.C., 139 schools closed between June 2001 and June 2006.
“Less students means less resources,” Lee said. “In certain locations, especially near the East Side”¦[certain schools] in the next year or two may be closing. How can you justify a school of 50 or 60 students?”
So what is causing this trend? Reimer suggested several factors, including increased private-school enrollment. She said that in the 2005-06 school year, Vancouver kindergarten-aged children entered private schools at a rate twice the provincial average. As well, Vancouver’s escalating real-estate prices may be pushing families to the suburbs.
Cross-boundary enrollment may be another factor. Since 2002, school catchment boundaries have been permeable, meaning students are free to attend any school in their district—and, in some cases, in another district—depending on classroom space. Although this cross-boundary enrollment policy won’t push local students from their schools, it can draw in students from other catchment areas.
“Every school has a catchment area, and students need to live within that area to go to that school,” Reimer said. “However, students can apply to go to a school”¦even if it’s outside their catchment area.”
These catchment areas were designed to restrict school enrollment. This so-called neighbourhood-schools policy made enrollment between catchment areas difficult for students before 2002; instead, they were encouraged to attend the school nearest to their home. Reasoning behind this policy held that the role of the neighbourhood school is to “ensure quality instruction and strong programs in all prescribed curriculum areas,” according to the district enrollment policy. The neighbourhood-schools policy has several advantages, including convenience for students and parents and a role in building local communities.
Despite looser boundaries since 2002, the Vancouver school district still encourages regular students to attend their “home”, or neighbourhood-catchment, school. Its enrollment policy states “the Board believes that it is important to maintain the relationship between residential location and school catchment areas.”
“Open boundaries start challenging the makeup of community, neighbourhood schools,” Baker said. “Garibaldi Annex”¦[which has] low enrollment numbers”¦may be threatening closure. But if you look at the demographics of the community, there are enough new families”¦[that the district] should be able to maintain the school.”
A more relaxed enrollment policy (or school-choice policy) has been in place for years in several other educational jurisdictions, including Alberta. There, catchment boundaries were relaxed inside school districts in 1974, and across districts in 1995. Last September independent researcher Patrick Maguire released a study of this policy commissioned by the Alberta-based Society for the Advancement of Excellence in Education called Choice in Urban School Systems: The Edmonton Experience .
“Parents have been very involved in making choices,” Maguire, who has since moved to Vancouver Island, said during a phone interview.
The study found that 92 percent of parents surveyed in metropolitan Edmonton are “active choosers”, meaning that they “strongly support the right to choose their children’s schools and consider quality over convenience factors by a two-to-one margin”. Maguire said the study shows that parents spend a lot of time deciding on the schools their children will attend. He said his study did not look at any correlation between a school’s enrollment and its geographic location.
“I can’t say I know enough detail about the Edmonton situation to say,” he said when asked about that link. However, he said that close to half of the students in Edmonton attend schools outside their neighbourhood catchment areas.
In Vancouver, the district’s enrollment policy charges principals with limiting the acceptance of cross-boundary requests. Students are admitted depending on whether a school has space for them, whether they have siblings at the school, and their proximity to the boundary. Decisions are made in consideration of priority, program suitability, staff, space, and facilities.
Cross-boundary students apply to attend a non-neighbourhood school for a number of reasons. These include having siblings in the school, having a family member who provides after-school care in the area, and proximity to a parent’s workplace. Some make the request because they have more friends at a certain school or want to access a program or course that the school offers—for example, the hockey program at Prince of Wales Secondary.
Thirty years ago, many of these programs were offered only by West Side schools, former COPE trustee Noel Herron said during a coffee-shop interview. In the past couple of decades, however, the system changed and East Side schools began offering these programs. Since then, schools have become equal in terms of the programs they offer. Lee said the district’s eight “mini-schools” (alternative programs, generally for above-average students) are spread across the district, and the East Side has a few international-baccalaureate programs.
However, students still travel across the city to attend schools in far-off catchment areas. Herron remembers one student he met when he was principal of the West Side’s University Hill secondary. The student lived in the catchment area for Weir elementary, located on East 44th Avenue, but had a father teaching at UBC. When Herron asked why the child was attending University Hill, the student said he didn’t want to go to “Weird Weir”.
“The student came across the city every day,” Herron said. “It worked out fine.”¦I admired his get-up-and-go attitude to travel across the city on a bus to go to school.”
Reimer’s examination of enrollment fluctuations between 2005 and 2006 found the highest drops in those Vancouver public schools that score among the lowest in the Fraser Institute’s annual rankings: John Oliver, Sir Charles Tupper, Templeton, David Thompson, and Britannia—all East Side secondary schools. The opposite is true on the West Side, with Churchill, Prince of Wales, University Hill, and Lord Byng—among the top Vancouver public schools on the Fraser Institute list—gaining the highest increases.
Rather than reflecting students seeking out programs, Lee said, enrollment drops in the East indicate a perception that West Side schools offer a higher quality of education. He attributes this viewpoint to everything from media reports of violent incidents at some East Side schools to the Fraser Institute’s annual school rankings—and even real-estate advertisements promoting a house’s proximity to a certain school.
Iona Whishaw, principal of Charles Tupper secondary, wrote in an e-mail interview that last year Tupper received only 10 or so cross-boundary applications. Although unfamiliar with the historical number of these applications at Tupper, she thinks the requests have fallen, and she noted that some West Side schools receive “sometimes hundreds of such requests”. Whishaw believes a reason for this drop in cross-boundary requests is the combination of the school-choice legislation and the Fraser Institute’s annual rankings.
“It is unfortunate that some parents seem unaware that the academic programs in all public schools are the same, as curriculum is provincially mandated,” she wrote. “This means that students are moving unnecessarily to schools out of their own neighborhood.”
Cheryl Davis from David Thompson’s parent advisory council said that there is a perception among many parents that West Side schools are better than those on the East Side. She said this perception includes a belief that the culture at West Side schools is more academically oriented, and that a higher percentage of the student population goes on to postsecondary education.
“I don’t think the perception is valid, but school rankings from the Fraser Institute, while limited in terms of the scope of what they look at, I think carry a lot of weight,” she said. “I think that people make an effort to get their kids into West Side schools.”¦If they do it legitimately, through cross-boundary enrollment, it’s hard—schools are full and there are limited spots—so they find other ways, such as forging addresses.”
Davis, Lee, and Reimer all said parents use covert methods to apply for cross-boundary enrollment in West Side schools.
Lee said parents use grandparents’ addresses, and gave the example of one West Side elementary school where a Grade 3 teacher asked students to put up their hands if they lived in Richmond and a third of the class responded. Reimer said she received many calls from parents asking how to fudge the system.
“It’s amazing how many parents call you as a trustee to ask how to cheat the system to get into a different school,” Reimer said. “I’m sure if anyone conducted an audit, they would find a lot of different addresses [for students].”
Some observers say a lack of balanced information is causing this perception among parents. In Edmonton, Maguire said, although the Fraser Institute’s Alberta rankings are widely available in newspapers and schools produce marketing materials that “advertise” their programs to prospective students, there’s a shortage of impartial information for parents to access.
“There’s really no independent source of information for parents,” he said.
“They really have to go looking.”¦It’s like a shopping-mall approach.”
Jane Friesen, a researcher in Simon Fraser University’s economics department, is embarking on a study to build a new information source for parents. Her SFU-funded five-year research project, entitled Education Systems and Outcomes in Diverse Communities: An Interdisciplinary Approach, aims to examine perceived school quality in British Columbia. Friesen’s team is collecting and analyzing data from the Foundational Skills Assessments conducted in grades 4 and 7, the Fraser Institute rankings, and other sources to determine their effect on schools.
“I don’t think anyone has a clue so far,” she said.
Friesen said a number of factors have recently changed the way B.C. schools are judged by parents and the public. In the past, people primarily used word-of-mouth accounts to gauge school quality. After the Ministry of Education began conducting the FSA tests in elementary schools in 1999, the Fraser Institute began basing its school rankings on those scores. These rankings gained a lot of media attention, which resulted in parents turning to them to gauge school quality.
“The Fraser Institute’s purpose in producing this information is to allow parents to exercise choice,” Friesen said. “They believe this puts pressure on schools to improve.”
Yet these rankings—which came out just as the province relaxed enrollment boundaries—have many critics. (See story on page 50.) Baker from the Vancouver District Parent Advisory Council said overreliance on Fraser rankings is unfair. He pointed out that every learning environment is different, and FSA scores alone are not a good representation of a school’s ability to educate a student. “Every school is good—is great—and”¦ allows opportunities for public education,” he said.
Whishaw noted that research conducted in the U.S. has shown that a good student will be good in any school and struggling students will not do any better in another school than in their home school.
“In this regard, the Fraser Institute is doing a great disservice to parents, students, and schools, since the premise of their ”˜report card’ is faulty to start with,” she wrote.
One alternative source of information is an ongoing study conducted by George Bluman, a researcher in UBC’s mathematics department.
In the 1970s, Bluman began correlating the grades of first-year calculus students at UBC with their graduating high-school marks. He has consistently found that students from East Side and West Side schools perform at comparable levels. In fact, until 2003 David Thompson secondary ranked in the top third of all schools for 17 consecutive years, while another East Side school, Killarney, ranked in the top third for 13 consecutive years.
“There’s not really any difference between East and West Side public schools,” Bluman said. “While individual schools have differences, collectively I can’t say East is better than West or West is better than East, at least in math.”
The only difference in scoring was between private and public schools, with Bluman concluding that public-school students consistently performed much better in first-year calculus classes than private-school students. Bluman said that one possibility his study raised was the importance of strong teachers and administration. More than school reputation, a school’s personnel have an effect on student achievement.
Friesen said that because very little research has been conducted in B.C. to assess the direct impact of school rankings, many of the arguments taking place in the province are driven by ideology rather than facts. She said that while debate over school choice is enormous in the United States, academic research conducted there is spilling over the border and influencing B.C.’s educational policy—despite the province’s very different circumstances.
“We do not want to see the educational-policy debate in B.C. exclusively informed by research in the U.S., because it’s likely to be misleading,” she said.
“It’s very difficult for the public to sort these issues out,” Friesen continued. “We would like to shed light on these issues and provide people with information they can use to begin to evaluate the different positions.”¦It’s going to be a real challenge.”
Until more information sources become available and parents read reports like Friesen’s and Bluman’s as widely as they read the Fraser rankings, there’s a good chance other challenges will remain.