Patti Bacchus: Parents are upset at the VSB. Again

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      Pity poor Rob Ford. I sure do. And no, not the one in Ontario. I’m referring to the chair of the Henry Hudson Elementary parent advisory council (PAC).

      I first met the Vancouver Rob Ford almost a decade ago, around the time the Vancouver School Board (VSB) was under pressure from the Gordon Campbell government to close schools in exchange for getting funds to seismically upgrade those that needed it.

      VSB policy at the time required a fairly lengthy process to be followed when it came to school closures. The first step was for senior VSB managers to identify schools that could be considered for closure, and then conduct studies to see if it would be feasible, in terms of where its students could be sent after closure.

      In the spring of 2010, VSB managers drew up a list of a dozen schools to be considered for closure. Hudson was one of them.

      Ford’s daughter was in the school’s French immersion program at the time, and he chaired the PAC then, as he does now. His son is in the program today.

      I heard from Ford a lot over the summer of 2010—about how absurd it was to even consider closing a school surrounded by other schools that were full.

      Once VSB staff had a chance to dig into the numbers over the summer and do a detailed analysis, they came to the same conclusion and Hudson was dropped from the potential closure list.

      That may have been Ford’s first fight-the-VSB rodeo, but it wouldn’t be his last. PAC-chair Ford’s been at the forefront of everything from advocating for Henry Hudson to be seismically upgraded or replaced, to dealing with its chronically flooded play field to trying to get the district’s popular elementary band and strings programs restored.

      As the former VSB chair, I learned that Ford’s a persistent and articulate advocate who is hard to ignore. He has a quirky and charming sense of humour, but his frustration can be palpable at times and he lets you know it and he doesn’t let you forget it.

      When I was scrolling through the VSB’s weekly meeting schedule last weekend, I noted an item on the agenda for last night’s (January 23) facilities planning committee meeting: French Immersion Program Review—Henry Hudson Focus.

      VSB proposing to move Hudson’s French immersion program to Strathcona elementary

      This was the first I’d heard of a proposal to move Henry Hudson’s popular French immersion program to Strathcona elementary. Both schools are “dual track,” which means they have a regular English program alongside a French immersion program.

      Hudson is in Kitsilano and Strathcona is in the Downtown Eastside. The VSB’s report in the meeting agenda notes the “majority” of Hudson’s French immersion students live downtown. That’s technically true, but it’s a slim majority—53 percent.

      Almost half the students—47 percent, live in either the Henry Hudson catchment, or in nearby West Side catchments like False Creek and General Gordon. It’s a long way from Kits to the Downtown Eastside if you’re six years old, or a parent without a car who needs to get your kids to school and yourself to work.

      The reason they want to move the program is that Hudson is bursting at the seams and already has more students than it comfortably has space for. Strathcona has surplus classroom space, according to VSB managers.

      It makes sense at first glance, but if I learned anything during my eight years on the VSB, it’s that the numbers seldom tell you the whole story about how what’s being proposed will affect the lives of students and their families. That’s why meaningful and timely consultation is key.

      Earlier this week I wondered how this idea was going over with Hudson French immersion parents. Surely the VSB would have given them the courtesy of a heads up via the school’s PAC chair before posting the program-relocation proposal on its website. Alas, that was not to be the case.

      Imagine Ford’s surprise to first hear about the proposal via a tweet I sent Saturday saying “The @VSB39’s management is proposing the Henry Hudson French Immersion program be moved to Strathcona. On the agenda for Wednesday’s Planning & Facilities Ctte meeting.”

      Imagine his frustration when the calls and emails started coming in from his PAC members and he had no other information to give them. I didn’t have to imagine it—I called him and heard all about it.

      “I don’t like being the fork the VSB uses to poke itself in the eye,” Ford told me over the phone.

      He mused whether the VSB “was completely daft” in not talking to him and the PAC before posting the proposal on the VSB website. I was wondering the same thing, and I think we know the answer.

      He said that when parents make the decision to apply to get their kids in French immersion, they’re making an eight-year commitment. They assume their kids will be able to complete the elementary program and the school that accepts them, which strikes me as reasonable.

      Ford said he doesn’t think VSB managers gave full consideration to transit time to travel from Kits to Strathcona school, and that they should be planning to replace the seismically high-risk Hudson building with a larger school that can accommodate enrolment growth in both the English and French immersion streams.

      Ford worries that moving the program from Hudson will make it “unpalatable” and effectively kill it.

      The Vancouver School Board has to cope with empty classrooms in some areas and classrooms with full enrollment in other parts of the city.
      Charlie Smith

      Sometimes it’s not what you do, it’s how you do it

      I know we didn’t keep everybody happy when I chaired the VSB—far from it. But we did what we could to be courteous and at least have the decency of giving the right people a heads up when there was news coming their way about their school. That always included PAC chairs.

      They’re often a key communication link between the school district and parents and put in countless volunteer hours to help support their kids’ schools. They deserve to be treated with respect and appreciation and not be blindsided, like Ford was in this case.

      The VSB’s on a bit of a roll when it comes to ticking off parents, instead of working with them collaboratively to find the best solutions to its many challenges.

      It’s managed to alarm and anger Eric Hamber secondary parents and alumni, who were also out in force at last night’s VSB facilities meeting due to its inadequate and disappointing plans to rebuild their school. 

      It had Cavell elementary parents up in arms a couple of months ago, over a poorly conceived plan to bus students across town during its seismic upgrade. It frustrated many more with its botched and postponed catchment-boundary review last spring.

      Next steps

      Seldom a day goes by I’m not relieved I’m no longer a school trustee. It’s a gruelling job at times that comes with a lot of responsibility but very little power to get things done the right way.

      You’re often left trying to figure out the least bad thing to do, instead of doing something that’s actually good for students. 

      The VSB’s in a tough spot, with too many kids in some parts of the city and too few in others. Government looks at the situation and tells the VSB to use the space it has more creatively, and stop asking for more money to build more classrooms. You can see its point, but when it’s you, and your kids who are being told your program is moving somewhere it isn’t practical for you to get to every school day, you see things differently.

      Ford told me he’d like the VSB to scrap the idea of moving Hudson’s French immersion program and to push government to come up with money to build a bigger and better Hudson, with enough room for both its growing English stream and the French immersion program. He wants the VSB to meet with his PAC members and work together on solutions.

      This sorry situation of an overcrowded Hudson and a French immersion program in peril could be relieved by getting on with building long-overdue new schools at the Olympic Village and in Coal Harbour. That would take some of the enrollment pressure off Hudson’s English stream and free up some space for population growth in the community.

      Building new schools takes time, of course, but schools built from modular, prefabricated structures can be done quickly. If the will was there, a modular school could be assembled in the Olympic Village area, which has space designated for a school, well before September 2020, which is when the VSB is proposing to move the Hudson French immersion program. The school could take kids from the Olympic Village area, instead of them squishing into schools in surrounding neighbourhoods.

      That could buy some time while a new Hudson is built, and permanent schools are constructed at both the Olympic Village and Coal Harbour.

      Henry Hudson elementary could lose its French immersion program in 2020.
      Henry Hudson elementary PAC

      Equity of Access

      French immersion is considered a “district program,” which is a specialty, choice program that families must apply to. Demand has outstripped the supply of spaces for years now.

      Canadian Parents for French is a group that advocates for French-second-language learning opportunities for young Canadians. Its B.C. and Yukon executive director, Glyn Lewis, told me by phone this week that students across all school districts should have access to French immersion programs.

      “It’s unacceptable to turn any child away from this life-changing education program” he told me.

      Which raises the question of equity. School-choice programs are options for those who have the ability to access them, and not all families are in that position. The popularity of French immersion is well established and given that it’s an official language, it’s reasonable to expect that school districts do everything possible to ensure all who want to opt for the program have equitable access to it in their communities.

      Expecting a single parent who doesn’t have a car to get their child to a program miles from home, especially when they signed up for the program expecting it to stay where it is, can be enough of a barrier that they have to withdraw from the program. Parents with a car and the time to get their child to and from the new location are at an advantage, and so are their children.

      School trustees are responsible for ensuring all kids have equitable access to educational opportunities. In reality, it’s impossible to guarantee everyone can get into the program they want, especially when there are so many choice options available, including mini schools, fine arts programs, Mandarin bilingual, International Baccalaureate, and Montessori, along with French immersion. But it’s fair that once a student is accepted to a program, they can expect to stay in it, ideally at the same location.

      I don’t envy the trustees and their management team in their task of addressing a space shortage in several parts of the city, a problem that only got worse after the B.C. Teachers’ Federation won its landmark court victory that restored contract language requiring smaller classes. The provincial government doesn’t allocate funding for space for district programs like French immersion, rather school districts place them where there is surplus space available.

      Perhaps that’s something government should rethink, given the demand for French immersion.

      It may well be that moving the Hudson program to Strathcona is the right move, but before they decide that, they need to do a better job of working collaboratively and respectfully with those who will be most affected by their decisions. The good news is the VSB is still weighing three options: to leave the program where it is, gradually phase it out and move it to Strathcona, or relocate the entire program in September 2020. It has committed to consulting with the community before reaching a decision later in the spring.

      Unfortunately, the consultation process VSB staff described at last night’s facilities and planning committee meeting is some pretty weak sauce that’s unlikely to satisfy either the Hudson or Strathcona communities. It consists of two open houses, “pop-up sessions”, and an online survey.

      In my experience, there will be people who want to address the trustees directly in a public meeting, and they should be able to do that. I’ve been a trustee and I know that hearing directly from people—instead of just reading dry summaries of survey results—is how you get to understand the stories behind the numbers.

      I also don’t envy poor old Vancouver Rob Ford, who will be leading the Hudson parents as they try to convince the VSB to go for the first option and let the French immersion program stay put.

      I really appreciate Ford and all the other dedicated parent volunteers who put in countless hours to support their schools and ensure kids get the best opportunities possible. I hope the current VSB crew gets its act together when it comes to meaningful consultation with the people their decisions affect most.

      I also hope the provincial government rethinks its parsimonious approach to capital funding so trustees aren’t constantly forced to make the least-bad decisions, and so they can start making some good ones instead.

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