Patti Bacchus: After celebrating Indigenous-focused school's name, VSB threatens to cancel its kindergarten program

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      The Vancouver School Board (VSB) celebrated the renaming of Sir William Macdonald elementary school last week—a positive, symbolic step on the path to reconciliation. The school’s new name, Xpey’, means "cedar" in the Musqueam language and reflects the cultural significance of the grove of trees that once towered over the site at what is now the southeast corner of East Hastings and Victoria Drive. 

      Then, boom—the day after the naming ceremony, parents heard that the VSB is threatening to cancel the Xpey’ kindergarten program for next year, a move that some parents fear may be a “kiss of death” for the small school.

      Xpey’ is home to the VSB’s Indigenous-focused school of choice, for students from kindergarten through Grade 7. The program started in 2012, with just 13 students in a kindergarten-to-Grade 3 split class. It has grown to include students up to Grade 7. With an emphasis on teaching academic competencies—reading, writing, and math—in a culturally responsive learning environment, Xpey’ strives to give students positive self-images as capable students who are proud of their ancestral identities.

      The program has struggled to attract enrollment since it opened, but it has grown steadily and slowly. It has been dogged by high turnover of principals and being in a seismically high-risk building that’s in poor condition, despite having passionate and dedicated teachers and a supportive parent community.

      A group of parents approached the VSB in 2015 and asked for its support for the school’s growth, including getting the school seismically upgraded or rebuilt. In response, I took a motion to the board in March of 2016 to seek federal funding for the construction of a centre for Aboriginal education, culture, and history, along with a new building for what is now Xpey’ school. The motion passed, unanimously.

      Although capital funding for public schools is a provincial responsibility, the former B.C. Liberal government was blunt in refusing to pay for upgrades or replacements for schools with low enrollment. Instead, it pressured boards to close underenrolled schools. For schools like Xpey’, that created a cycle where some parents chose to send their kids to schools with safer buildings and better odds of staying open, causing the school’s numbers to drop further, putting it even lower on the seismic-priority list and at risk of closure.

      Making a federal case to rebuild the school

      The rationale for going after federal funding was that it would be a built commitment to reconciliation and that a beautiful, safe, purpose-built facility would tell families the program was a priority for all levels of government and that it—and its students—would be well supported. That would attract more students and enable the program to grow and thrive. The centre would serve as a resource for all Vancouver schools, and perhaps beyond. Build it and they will come, etcetera. 

      Some preliminary work was done to build support for the proposal, but a few months later the former B.C. government fired the VSB trustees (including me) for failing to approve a budget that contained cuts to teachers and programs. It appears VSB managers and trustees have done nothing since then to actively pursue either provincial or federal funding for a new building for Xpey’.

      That’s a betrayal to the staff, families, and community members who’ve worked to make Xpey’ a success, and it's a signal that the current VSB isn’t committed to the success of Xpey’. Heck, it isn’t even on the district’s 2018/19 capital plan submission to government for funding, despite the fired board having identified the school as a priority for seismic upgrading.

      Xpey’ parents tell me they feel ignored and unsupported by the VSB, noting that its officials show up for photo opportunities like the naming ceremony last week but otherwise ignore the school and leave it to parents to promote it.

      Patti Bacchus

      The cedar tree as a metaphor

      A key part of last week’s naming ceremony was planting a cedar tree, which, according to parents I spoke to this week, almost didn’t happen due to resistance from VSB managers. In the end, the parents pushed back and the tree was planted and blessed. It’s a fitting metaphor for the school program itself and its relationship with the VSB.

      If the VSB wants Xpey’ to thrive and reach its greatest heights possible, it needs to provide it with the right conditions and supports, especially while it’s small and trying to grow. If it chokes off student intake at kindergarten, the school will surely wither and fail to thrive.

      When we developed plans for the Indigenous-focused school, we sought advice from leaders in Vancouver’s Indigenous communities. They told us the most effective way to ensure the school’s students would succeed would be to start from the beginning, with kindergarten, and grow the school up from there. Their advice was that by giving students a positive sense of identity in a culturally safe and rich learning environment from the very start, they would be more successful in school.

      They advised us that an Indigenous-focused program needed to stand alone, with its own site and building, not a segregated program within another school. The program would be one of excellence and choice, open to all students who wanted to learn through an Indigenous lens. After reviewing potential locations, they proposed the Macdonald site, which had space available and is located near the Aboriginal Friendship Centre, the Urban Native Youth Association, and other organizations that serve Vancouver’s diverse Indigenous population.

      The school should work in partnership with these organizations and become a resource centre for Indigenous education, culture, and history, they advised us. In many respects, that’s happening as planned, thanks to strong community support for the school and the tireless efforts of the school’s staff and families. 

      VSB threatens to cancel Indigenous-focused program’s kindergarten class for next year

      While last week was celebratory with the naming ceremony and tree-planting, Xpey’ parents also got hit with the alarming news that has them concerned about the future of the Indigenous-focused program. VSB managers warned them that if enough students aren’t registered for next year’s kindergarten class by June 15, there won’t be one.

      First the VSB didn’t want to plant the tree. Now, they don’t want to plant the students in next year’s kindergarten class. Without that kindergarten intake, parents fear the program with falter and students will go elsewhere for kindergarten—and stay elsewhere.

      I asked a few VSB trustees why there isn’t more VSB support for making Xpey’ a success, and one told me managers say the program costs more per student than other ones do and that it’s not fair to the other programs to put more resources into Xpey’. Sadly, that doesn’t surprise me. When the board voted to establish the school several years ago, there was resistance from some quarters in the VSB bureaucracy and the board, and it appears there still is.

      I heard the “not fair” argument from certain VSB managers and a couple of trustees when I was on the board. I didn’t buy it then and I don’t now. The VSB made a commitment to reconciliation and the Indigenous-focused school and it needs to make every effort to follow through, including supporting Xpey’ and respecting and heeding its parent leaders’ advice.

      Speaking of which, there’s a group of Xpey’ parents who are committed to making the school grow and succeed. They are articulate, determined, well educated, and fed up with getting so little VSB support for the work of trying to create an authentic and true approach to Indigenous learning.

      Michele Buckman is one of the parents who approached the VSB in 2015, asking for the school to be rebuilt or upgraded and renamed. She wants to see a demonstration of the Vancouver school district’s commitment to the success and growth of Xpey’ and a voice for Indigenous parents at the district level, separate from the district parents’ advisory council (DPAC).

      She says there’s been no discussion for a few years about rebuilding the school building and addressing the many inequities that affect the school; inequities that are rooted in colonialism.

      Buckman says the district’s rigid requirement to have kindergarten reqistrations in by June 15 is a form of administrative violence and may well be the “kiss of death” for the program. She’s tired of the VSB shifting the onus for the school’s success off to parents and asks: “Why isn’t anybody working with us?”

      She says there’s been no outreach from the trustees to the Xpey’ parents and that parents are tired of always having to advocate. “It’s exhausting for parents to always have to keep our fingers on the pulse of what’s happening at the VSB,” says Buckman, who recently completed a master’s degree while working and raising two children.

      Her frustration is more than warranted. She and other Xpey’ parents are doing the work of the well-paid people whose jobs it is to actually do it.

      Parent Crystal Smith shares Buckman’s concerns and says the VSB needs to put a lot more time and focus on Xpey’. “They only come to the school for the big ceremonies,” Smith says.

      She also wants the VSB to promote the school instead of leaving it up to busy parents. She says that failing to rebuild or seismically upgrade the school sends a message that Indigenous lives don’t matter, and she notes that the school’s historically lower enrollment is a result of systemic discrepancies.

      Smith says the VSB needs to push harder to get the school rebuilt and needs to provide more support staff to the school.

      Patti Bacchus

      Xpey’ is a unique school that requires different processes

      She says the threat to cancel next year’s kindergarten class is an unfair blow to the program. She says many Indigenous families are “constantly on the move” and may not register until August or early September. She wants the VSB to remove its deadline and recognize that Xpey’ is a unique school that requires different rules.  

      Smith told me by phone earlier this week that the foundation of Indigenous ways of knowing is relationships and that the VSB has failed to build relationships with Xpey’ parents. She says the high turnover of school administrators has also been “sad”, because just as relationships develop, administrators disappear.

      Xpey’ parent Jolene Andrew is in Helsinki this week speaking at the International Federation of Settlement Houses Conference. Her presentation is called Building Resilient Communities: Engaging Indigenous Voices. Like Buckman and Smith, Andrew has a clear vision for the school and she wants Xpey’ to thrive. She knows that to do that, it will need a lot more support from the VSB. I reached Andrew in Helsinki via a Facebook call and she echoed the same concerns I heard from other Xpey’s parents.

      She asked why it’s falling to parents to grow the school and why the district’s registration process for Xpey’ is so rigid and unfriendly to families (parents are instructed to go and apply at their assigned catchment schools before registering at Xpey’, as it’s a district program, not a regular catchment program). 

      She noted that when parents spoke at VSB committee meetings a few years ago, trustee Fraser Ballantyne asked where the proof was that Indigenous ways of teaching “worked”, while no one ever asks the same about programs like mini schools, French Immersion, or the district’s Mandarin bilingual program. 

      What the VSB needs to do to support Xpey’ 

      There are wonderful things happening at Xpey’ and some outstanding partnerships with community organizations and, indeed, much to celebrate. I’d encourage all parents to consider enrolling their kids there. Much of that success, however, comes despite of the VSB, not because of it. That needs to change, immediately. 

      It’s up to the VSB to walk the talk of reconciliation, and takes more than showing up for photo opportunities and tweeting about them. 

      Last week the VSB’s official Twitter account posted “A Musqueam elder gifted the name Xpey’ to the school—in honour and in respect of the land on which it stands, where students learn and a community grows—like a thriving cedar.”

      Apparently, the VSB facilities department didn’t want the cedar tree planted because it would require watering and support to survive, until its roots were deep and strong enough for it to support and nurture itself. The same seems to go for the program. The question is whether the VSB is any more committed to seeing the Xpey’ community grow and thrive than it was to that tree that almost didn’t get planted.

      The parents had to fight for the tree, just like they’ve had to fight every step of the way for the Indigenous-focused program. They’re tired of fighting and asking for the VSB to do its job and live up to its commitments.

      If the VSB wants to shut the program down and close the school, it should come out and say so. I hope it doesn’t. But choking it off by neglecting it, failing to get it rebuilt, giving it inadequate resources and a revolving door of administrators, failing to build relationships with parents and enforcing rules—those are exactly what Buckman describes them as: a form of administrative violence. It is the opposite of reconciliation.

      If the VSB is committed to Xpey’ and to reconciliation, here’s what parents say the VSB needs to do:

      1. Get the school rebuilt or seismically upgraded. Put a sincere and determined effort intoactively seeking federal and provincial funding for this.
      2. Remove barriers to kindergarten registration by guaranteeing the kindergarten class will go ahead in September.
      3. Put more effort into hiring qualified Indigenous staff for the school. Ensure enough staff and resources are in place to support the needs of the students, recognizing that Xpey’ is a low-barrier school of inclusion with a high percentage of students who have special learning needs.
      4. Put a sincere effort into building and nurturing respectful relationships with Xpey’ families and staff. Invest time to learn about authentic engagement of Indigenous parents.
      5. Recognize the unique nature of Xpey’ and that it is not just another “choice” program. Give families access to the district’s contracted student bus service, to enable more students to access the school.
      6. Promote the school to attract enrollment, using district resources. Don’t leave this work to parents, who have their own jobs.
      7. Appoint and support a board of elders to provide ongoing guidance and support for the school.


      Correction: After this column was posted, parent Michele Buckman clarified that they found out "a little while" before the naming ceremony that the kindergarten class might be cancelled, not the day after. 



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