Patti Bacchus: VSB’s Hamber Secondary rebuild plan alarms parents and alum

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      A replacement school should not be a downgrade.”— Andrea Nicholson, Eric Hamber alumni coordinator, class of 1980.

      Located smack in the middle of Vancouver, Eric Hamber secondary is a high school that has it all: a rich range of athletics programs, outstanding and varied fine-arts opportunities, solid academics, and an award-winning fashion-design program.

      Unfortunately, much of what makes it such a great school appears to be at risk due to the Vancouver School Board’s (VSB) plan to rebuild the 55-year-old school.

      The plan is to replace the seismically high-risk school at West 33rd Avenue and Oak Street with a new 15,000 square meeting building at a cost of almost $80 million. The new school will be built on the northwest corner of the school site, and once it’s complete, the old, seismically unsafe school building will be used as a temporary accommodation for other school populations whose buildings are being seismically upgraded. The new school is expected to be complete by the start of the 2021/2022 school year, and it has parents, students, alumni, and staff alarmed and upset.

      Flickr, Andrew Zo

      In a January 7 letter to Education Minister Rob Fleming, Hamber Parent Advisory Council (PAC)  cochair Stephanie Yada lists what she calls “three very serious deficiencies” in plans for the new school: a lack of gym and outdoor recreational space, including a 19-percent reduction in gym space and a “drastic” reduction in outdoor space; no auditorium or large performance and gathering space; and a lack of space for the school’s fashion-design program, which is one of the largest and most successful of its kind in B.C.

      These are no small concerns. The school’s current three gyms aren’t even enough to accommodate the six physical education (PE) classes that run in every single block, which means other spaces often have to be used for PE-class activities. Hamber is the only public school left with a football team, and last year its team won the provincial championship. The new plan won’t have space for the team to practise and play. Hamber is also home to B.C.’s largest Ultimate program and has thriving soccer, basketball, volleyball, badminton, field hockey, softball, tennis, track-and-field programs and more. More than 700 students participate each year in extracurricular programs, and the school hosts numerous citywide annual sporting events on its playing fields and track.

      If the plan proceeds as presented so far, they’ll not only lose about a fifth of their already inadequate gym space, they’ll lose the running track and two large fields that are used for ultimate and soccer.

      Yada says that will result in a “substantial reduction in meaningful physical education opportunities for Hamber students”. That’s pretty awful, if you ask me.

      Auditorium is used by bands, choirs, drama, dancers and more

      The loss of the auditorium is a “huge oversight”, according to Yada. Hamber’s fine-arts offerings include several band and string-orchestra programs, choirs, and drama and dance programs. The fashion program uses the auditorium for its renowned annual fashion show, and the school hosts numerous annual district performances and festivals. Losing the auditorium is a strike to the very heart of the school.

      Yada is also concerned that no space is allocated for the school’s popular fashion program to operate, despite the program having been a successful launch pad for many Hamber alumni careers.

      Speaking of alumni, they’re speaking out as well and are frustrated at being left out of the planning program. Hamber has an active alumni community that does much to support the school. Alumni coordinator Andrea Nicholson (class of 1980) says they’re willing to do a fundraising drive to help pay for an auditorium and other facilities, and would like the new school’s design to at least include space that could be completed through a fundraising campaign. As it stands, there’s no space for an auditorium, even if the money is raised.

      They’re also circulating an online petition that had 2,192 signatures when I checked it on Thursday morning (January 17). It calls for the VSB trustees to show leadership and advocate on the Hamber community’s behalf (which is, you know, exactly what trustees are elected to do, for goodness sake). They want to consult and collaborate on a vision that ensures future Hamber students will have the same kind of opportunities and experiences that they did. They’re willing to find funding for the things government won’t pay for and to partner with the the VSB to get the project done right.

      The petition says: “We the undersigned, parents, students, taxpayers, alumni, and supporters of Eric Hamber Secondary School, petition the provincial government, The Honourable Rob Fleming, Minister of Education, The Honourable George Heyman, Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy and MLA for Vancouver-Fairview, and the Vancouver School Board and trustees to include an auditorium, increased gymnasium and outdoor space, and adequate fashion design program and arts spaces in the design and construction of the new Eric Hamber School."

      It will be interesting to see if they get anywhere with their advocacy. I hope they do.

      What went wrong

      You’d think you’d have to work pretty hard to turn an $80 million school-capital project into a public-relations headache for not one but two levels of government: the VSB and the province. But there you have it. And this isn’t the first time. I wrote about parents’ frustration with another current VSB seismic project at Cavell Elementary a couple of months ago. Cavell parents were angry they weren’t consulted about the plan to seismically upgrade their school—instead of rebuilding it—and to bus their kids to other schools across town during construction.

      Parent and community backlash is what you get when you don’t consult and work with the people closest to a school early enough in project planning. It’s what happens when elected school trustees fail to do the work they’re elected to do: provide local representation and advocacy for the communities they’re elected to serve. It’s what happens when a new government fails to reverse terrible policy decisions of its predecessor, which is the case in the parsimonious, B.C. Liberal formula for determining how space is allocated for new school buildings.

      It’s what happens when elected school boards leave it to their staff and the ministry of education to sign off on project plans, without deliberating and voting on them themselves.

      Getting it right

      The VSB trustees need to invite the Hamber community representatives—parents, students, staff, alumni, neighbours and local businesses—to collaborate on a plan that would ensure Hamber’s proud and rich legacy lives on in its new building and its reconfigured site.

      The VSB needs to be open, transparent, and flexible on the planning-and-design process, instead of being boxed in on their thinking by rigid ministry of education bureaucrats. The trustees need to direct their staff to stop telling community members that their ideas to improve the plan are impossible. They are not.

      Once a plan is developed, the VSB needs to invite Fleming to come and meet with the group and hear why the government/VSB proposal is inadequate and why it will destroy the very things that make Hamber such a successful school. Yes, the whole group. I learned as a school trustee and VSB chair that there is strength in numbers and that when we work side by side for shared goals, we get things done and students benefit.

      Fleming needs to come and he needs to listen. He needs to direct his staff that they need to listen too, and that things aren’t going to be done the way they were under the B.C. Liberals, because this sorry school-replacement plan has B.C. Liberals written all over it. It’s time to do better, not just for the Hamber community but for all school-capital projects. Otherwise the seismic-mitigation program, which should be nothing but good news, will end up creating backlash after backlash and a whole lot of frustration and disappointment.

      Fleming needs to go back and tell cabinet that high schools need lots of great space for sports and fine-arts performances. He needs to tell them it’s time to scrap the B.C. Liberals’ formulas that mean replaced and rebuilt schools end up being downgrades instead of upgrades. He needs to remember what makes schools great and makes their grads proud to have gone there and to leave with memories they’ll treasure for a lifetime.

      There’s still time to slow down a bit and get this done right if the VSB and the government are willing to try. If they don’t, that tells you everything you need to know about how much they really care about public schools and the students who attend them.

      Click here to sign the online Hamber PAC and alumni petition. The VSB is also welcoming your feedback until January 25. Click here to fill in its feedback form.


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