Patti Bacchus: Parents fear that VSB catchment changes will separate siblings

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      A proposal to change boundaries that determine which Vancouver School Board (VSB) catchment school kids go to has parents worried their kids will be split up between schools, creating family havoc once the changes go into effect in September 2019.

      The proposed changes—which the VSB will vote on in late June—affect public-school catchments in West Point Grey, Kitsilano, the Olympic Village, Mount Pleasant, and downtown. It’s the first time in well over a decade the VSB has proposed major boundary changes, and it’s an attempt to spread students more evenly among schools and take pressure off oversubscribed ones.

      In recent years, parents have had to enter lotteries to get space in some schools due to overcrowding, even if they live in its catchment area. Those who don’t “win” spots are referred to the closest available schools.

      Although students can attend schools outside their catchment, in-catchment students are given priority and schools will not accept cross-boundary applications if they’re full.

      Under the VSB’s current proposal, students whose catchments change will be able to stay in their current schools but their younger siblings will not get priority access and will be expected to go to the new catchment school. For many families who juggle childcare, transportation, and the need for parents to get to work, “this may be the straw the breaks them”, a General Gordon parent told me by phone this week.

      The stories behind the numbers

      The First Avenue Athletes Village Housing Co-operative sounds like an idyllic place to raise a young family, except for a big problem that’s about to get worse: its school, or, more precisely, the lack thereof. When the village was built prior to the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, the city set aside a site for a school, but the province, which is responsible for education funding, never came through with the funding to build it.

      Kristie Keeney and her husband have lived in the co-op for six years. Their daughter Ria is six years old, and her little sister Annie is two. When it was time to sign Ria up for kindergarten, they registered for their “catchment” school, Simon Fraser elementary. It’s a bit of a hike from the Olympic Village area, but they knew that until the VSB got funding to build the Olympic Village school, that was where the dozens of co-op kids would go. They were happy that at least Ria would go to school with co-op friends and that parents could help each other get their kids to and from school. Then Ria didn’t get in.

      They discovered that Fraser didn’t have room for all the kids in its catchment area, which had grown to include the Olympic Village kids. The closest school the VSB could offer them was General Wolfe elementary, which they tried but didn’t work for them. They ended up switching Ria to a private school, but they were happy to find out they could get her into Simon Fraser for next September.

      Now they’ve discovered that VSB’s plan will change the Olympic Village’s catchment school from Simon Fraser to Mount Pleasant elementary. Students attending Fraser next year won’t have to move, but their siblings won’t get “grandfathered” into Fraser, meaning families like Keeney’s have a problem. Do they send Ria to Fraser in September, knowing Annie will have to go to Mount Pleasant when she starts school? Even if they tried to be proactive and send Ria to Mount Pleasant next year to keep the kids together later, they’ve heard that Mount Pleasant is full for Ria’s grade next year and that Ria probably wouldn’t get in anyway.

      That leaves them with three options: the future prospect of having their two kids in two different schools, having Ria make another move in Grade 2, which would be her fourth school in three years, or keeping Ria in private school for another year.

      That may not seem like a big deal to some, but for busy families trying to live car-free in affordable family housing in a beautiful, central location in a community of families who support each other and take care of each other’s kids, it’s enough to have several co-op families considering moving from a community they’ve grown to love.

      I’m hearing similar stories across the city from parents who have settled into housing near what they thought were their neighbourhood schools only to discover they may be assigned a new catchment that will affect their younger kids but not the older ones. You’d have to be living under a rock not to know how hard it is for young families in Vancouver to deal with housing and child-care costs (or even finding childcare and after-school care), and many families’ lives may get a whole lot more complicated thanks to the catchment-boundary changes.

      A reasonable request: “grandfathering” siblings

      I’ve talked to many families who are upset about the changes, but for the most part, they agree the boundaries need to be redrawn to alleviate enrollment pressures. What they’re asking is for siblings to be grandfathered into schools their older siblings now attend in cases where their catchment school is changed. As the proposal stands, only the kids who are already in school will be grandfathered and allowed to stay in their old catchment school.

      It sounds like a completely reasonable request to me. It may mean some catchments will continue to be oversubscribed for a few years as families work their way through the system, and lotteries may not be completely phased out, but it also seems like a fair and compassionate compromise that is in the kids’ best interests. I hope the trustees agree with me and amend the proposal to allow this.

      How we got here

      For as long as I can remember, the VSB has been plagued by the problem of having a mismatch between where it has space and where kids live. The government is reluctant to pay for new schools when there’s space available in schools within a few kilometers. Parents want schools their kids can walk to, that are close to home. City and provincial governments are disconnected when it comes to developing new communities like the Olympic Village. The city ensures there’s land available for a school, but the province is responsible for paying to build it. The school board is stuck in the middle.

      Elementary schools have limits on how many kids can be in each class, so you can’t just squeeze a few more in the back of the room. Once a class is full, that’s it. You can sometimes convert rooms that might have been used previously for art or music to classrooms, or add a portable or two, but at a certain point you have to start turning kids away.

      That can mean that you could live across the street from your catchment school only to be told there’s no space for your child. The VSB would then offer you the closest space available, which could be a few kilometres away. Although that may not be a big deal for some—especially those with cars and the time and flexibility to be able to drive their five- or six-year olds to and from school—it can be a real problem for others.

      There’s some speculation among parents I’ve talked to that this is all an exercise for the VSB to convince the government that it really needs the Olympic Village school, while government is challenging the board to use the space it already has more effectively. That wouldn’t surprise me, given my own experience on the VSB. The previous B.C. Liberal government wanted the VSB to close several schools (in what just happened to be East Vancouver NDP ridings) before it would fund new schools where they’re needed. That pressure is off now, but the push to solve the space crunch is focused on redistributing kids instead. It remains to be seen if it will work, but what would be better, in my opinion, is to get on with building the Olympic Village school.

      There are reasons why the VSB didn’t tackle this years ago—the problem tends to be a moving target. When numbers downtown were growing, we managed to get the new Crosstown school built to take pressure off Elsie Roy. We did the same at UBC with a new high school and Norma Rose Point elementary. We also added four classrooms to Elsie Roy a few years ago. We added some portables where we could fit them. We submitted funding requests to get going on a new school in Coal Harbour and one for Olympic Village. We knew trying to solve the problem through boundary changes could solve some problems but could create new ones.

      One problem is that if you fiddle around with elementary boundaries, you need to remember that elementary kids become high-school kids and that kids like going to high school with their friends. What’s being proposed now by the VSB will mean that in some cases kids will end up in new elementary catchments, but when it comes time to go to high school, they’ll be in a different catchment than most of their elementary-school classmates.

      Bayview Elementary School
      Patti Bacchus

      A case in point is a portion of the current Bayview catchment in Kitsilano. The proposal is to move part of the Bayview catchment to Queen Mary elementary in West Point Grey. Given that Queen Mary was just seismically upgraded and Bayview is about to go through all that, many parents may prefer the change. The problem is that when it comes time to go to high school, kids from the former Bayview catchment will still be in the Kitsilano secondary catchment while the rest of Queen Mary is in the Byng catchment. Some kids may be fine with that, but I know a lot won’t and will balk at being separated from their elementary-school friends for high school.

      A process mess

      If a B.C. school board wants to close a neighbourhood school, it has to go through a formal process that ensures affected communities are thoroughly consulted. In the VSB’s “catchment review process” (which should be called what it is—a “catchment change process”), affected families are telling me that to them it’s like a school closure, as they may be permanently closed out of their neighbourhood schools due to the boundary changes.

      Yet instead of being meaningfully consulted, they’re being told they can attend open houses and fill in a survey. In a closure process, they’d get opportunities to address the trustees and tell their own stories. That’s the very least they deserve now and they’re not even getting that.

      Having been a school trustee for eight years, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for trustees to hear the stories behind the numbers. Staff reports are informative and critical to decision-making, but so is hearing from the people your decisions will affect most. Some people prefer to send emails or fill in surveys, but others want to be heard by the trustees. I was always happy to make time to listen, as well as to read emails and survey results. That’s the value of locally elected school boards. They’re there to hear from the community.

      These proposed catchment changes make a lot of sense on the VSB staff display boards and in written reports, but when you listen to parents, you quickly realize that there are some flaws in the plan that could be fairly easily fixed. But you might not understand that if you didn’t listen to them.

      The VSB should have ensured their consultation process included public meetings with the full board present where parents could ask questions and provide feedback. It’s not enough to send staff out to do information sessions, leaving many parents to think the whole thing is a done deal.

      These proposed changes will be historic and may affect families and communities for generations. The least the trustees can do is to listen to parents and give full consideration to their reasonable requests.

      For more information

      Those who want to find out more can attend a VSB open house on Tuesday (May 22) from 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at King George Secondary School, 1755 Barclay Street (above the Joe Fortes Library).

      My advice to those who want to speak to the trustees is to contact the VSB and ask to speak at the beginning of its June 13 planning-and-facilities committee meeting at 5 p.m., which is a a better-late-than-never option.

      The board is scheduled to vote on the catchment boundary changes on June 25. For additional information, have a look here.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.