Patti Bacchus: North Van parents opposed to elite school hockey program

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      A plan to move an elite, boys-only, high-performance hockey program from a West Vancouver high school—to a much smaller high school in North Vancouver’s Deep Cove—blew up this week at a heated parent meeting at Seycove secondary school.

      In an audio recording of the meeting a parent advisory council (PAC) member sent me, parents question a North Vancouver school district assistant superintendent about why he told the district's elected trustees that he'd already consulted them about the move. The parents alleged that he had not. 

      The trustees voted last week to approve, in principle, the establishment of a North Vancouver elite hockey academy to be hosted at Seycove, a small high school in the tight-knit Deep Cove community. 

      The parents make a fair point. The assistant superintendent, Chris Atkinson, stated in a February 25 memorandum to the board that “consultations with the school PAC regarding the proposed academy at Seycove school have occurred”.

      Consultation means sharing the information with parents, answering their questions about it, and then seeking their feedback. According to several PAC members who contacted me this week, none of that happened prior to Atkinson’s proposal to the board, and his assurances that the PAC had been consulted.

      That’s a problem.

      I’ve been a school trustee. Trustees rely on their well-compensated senior managers to give them accurate information to inform their decisions. The B.C. School Act stipulates that boards can only offer academies after consulting with the school’s PAC, and if there’s sufficient demand for the program.

      As a board chair, I insisted trustees had the opportunity to be present during public or parent consultations, instead of relying on staff to do it and report back to the board. You get a much better sense of the feedback when you hear it from the sources, instead of filtering it through managers. And you can verify that genuine consultation actually happened, not that you should have to. 

      Getting off on the wrong skate

      From what I can see, the board appeared to go ahead and voted to move forward with the hockey academy, in the absence of consultation with the PAC, and with the knowledge that most of the students who will be in the program don’t come from the North Vancouver School District.

      Given the trustees voted based on information that could be incorrect, it will be interesting to see if any trustees move to reconsider their motion to give the program the green light. They should. 

      The West Vancouver Warriors hockey program has been running at West Van’s Sentinel secondary since 2016, but the West Van district recently decided to end its partnership with the program, which is run by Spartan Sport Group, a private company. It operates in partnership with the toney Hollyburn Country Club, which charges $60,000 to those wishing to become members. 

      At this week’s PAC meeting, Atkinson acknowledged the program, which has been running at Sentinel secondary in West Vancouver since 2015, led to issues around “academic performance” and student behaviour.

      Unfortunately, this program move couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start (or on the wrong skate), due to how poorly the trustees and their senior managers have introduced it to the Seycove community.

      A Seyhawk sculpture is on the grounds of Seycove secondary in Deep Cove
      School District 44

      Seycove parents’ concerns and questions

      The West Van Warriors hockey program is elite in more ways than one. You have to play hockey at a very competitive level to qualify for it, and it costs about $22,000 a year, plus other expenses, to be in the program. Most of its players come from outside the school district. Lots of families in the district could never afford it. So there’s the equity issue.

      Adding 76, elite-level, teenaged-male athletes to a school of 521 students is going to have an impact. Rumours are swirling in the community about behaviour issues that may or may not have contributed to the West Vancouver school district’s decision to cut ties with the program. None of these rumours have been confirmed, though one parent said at the meeting there’s a player in the program her child is afraid of.

      Parents at the PAC meeting cited research findings that when there is a disproportionate number of boys in a classroom, student learning is negatively affected, and that girls are the most affected.

      Most of the students will be bused from outside the district and will leave in the afternoons to practise at Hollyburn, leading parents to question how much the players will be part of the school community. The boys-only nature of the program is also a concern. What about Seycove girls who would like to play competitive hockey?

      Parents want to know more about why the West Van board decided to cut ties to the program, after running there for just a few years. They want transparency about the problems with “academic success” and any behavioural issues that may have led to West Van pulling the plug.

      Without transparency and honesty about why West Van wanted to end its partnership with the program, rumours inevitably fill up the information vacuum. That’s creating a lot of anxiety and suspicion in the community.

      Teachers concerned, too

      The president of the West Vancouver Teachers’ Association told me that of all the district’s specialty programs, the Warriors hockey program was the most problematic for her members. She said Sentinel teachers were relieved the program was moving out of the school.

      She didn’t want to comment on rumours about student behaviour and disciplinary issues, including suspensions and expulsions, but said she’d received complaints that administrators pressured teachers to adjust marks higher for hockey players and in some cases, administrators had changed student marks after teachers submitted them.

      She said teachers also complained of being pressured to adjust classroom instruction to accommodate hockey players’ schedules, as they travel for games and sometimes have to leave early. Some were asked to provide extra tutoring or help to hockey players, who’d been absent due to their game schedules.

      The North Vancouver teachers’ association says it was blindsided by the proposal and board decision, and wasn’t given an opportunity to weigh in on whether or not it was a good idea, prior to the board’s vote last week. 

      Seycove parents told me the school’s teachers have now passed a motion opposing moving the program to the school.

      This morning (March 5), a parent notified me that Seycove students have started a petition opposing have the hockey program come to their school.

      What’s next?

      The board’s motion last week gave Atkinson the green light to negotiate a contract for the hockey academy to move to Seycove, despite not consulting with the Seycove PAC, nor the teachers, first. Atkinson heard this week that PAC members are opposed, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t push ahead. 

      I emailed him to ask him what his plans were, but I have not received a reply. 

      A contract with the Spartan Sport Group Inc., the private entity that runs the hockey portion of the program, still needs to be hammered out and signed. Atkinson told parents Monday that he’d prefer it to be on a one-year trial basis. That may or may not work for the hockey folks, who’ve already scheduled an “evaluation camp for prospective players, in early April. 

      At the very least, the badly bungled process to date has led to what several parents termed a “lack of trust,” and a terrible foundation on which to build a successful program.

      It should never had happened this way. It isn’t the first time I’ve written about school district managers allegedly not taking responsibility to authentically consult with parents, students, staff and communities seriously, and their boards letting them get away with it. I hope it’s the last.

      On the tape of the March 2 Seycove PAC meeting, Atkinson sounded dismissive and condescending to the parents. Parents didn’t sound satisfied with what they heard from him, even booing at points. He attempted to scold them for what they might have been implying about the hockey players. That did not go over well with the articulate and well-educated parent group, who quickly shut him down.

      Every parent I’ve spoken to has emphasized they’re not opposed to the boys in the hockey club, and that they will welcome and support them if they come to Seycove. Their frustration and anger is directed the lack of transparency to date in the process, and the subsequent lack of trust that’s resulted from Atkinson telling the board they’d been consulted, when they allege that they were not.

      Based on the audio recording of the PAC meeting this week, Atkinson didn’t do anything to improve the situation, and probably made parents even more distrustful than they already were. It sounded to me like a mess he could have cleaned up with a sincere and humble and apology, and a commitment to moving forward honestly, respectfully, collaboratively and transparently. That was not to be forthcoming, unfortunately.

      None of this is fair to the Seycove parents, students, and teachers, nor the kids in the Warriors hockey program.

      It’s up to the elected school board to fix this mess, but there’s no assurance it will take control of this situation and either scrap the plan entirely, or give the file to someone who will work respectfully and transparently with the Seycove community to find a way to make the program work in the school.

      I spoke to board chair Christie Sacre earlier this week, and she told me she wasn’t concerned about the parents' allegations that Atkinson may have misled the board about having consulted with the PAC. She went on to say she “trusts the process” and finds it frustrating that the Seycove community is “up in arms”.

      As for concerns about disciplinary issues, Sacre said that if students had already been expelled from the hockey program, then the problem had been taken care of. 

      Her response doesn’t inspire confidence in the board’s ability— or willingness—to listen to those it’s elected to represent and serve.

      Bigger issues at play

      Should expensive, elite programs, like this hockey academy, be running in partnership with our public schools? To be enrolled in the hockey academy, students are charged (by the external hockey organization) about $22,000 a year, plus additional expenses required for equipment and travel costs.

      The district receives the regular provincial funding allocation that all students get, and nothing more for hosting the program.

      Imagine being a kid who’s passionate about hockey, but whose family can’t afford those fees, who goes to Seycove. Public education is supposed to help level life’s uneven playing field, giving equal access to opportunities to all students, regardless of their parents’ financial situations. You’d have to watch those privileged players head off to the country club each afternoon, or hit the road for away games. And you’d be reminded that you can’t pay, so you can’t play. That’s not how public school is supposed to make you feel.

      Is it good for kids?

      Should young teens be encouraged to travel far from their own communities, to compete at high levels, in a sport that’s increasingly being commodified and privatized?

      On the one hand, we want to enable all kids to pursue their passions, and by coordinating a competitive hockey program with a school schedule makes some sense, but is it coming at too high a cost, and I’m not just referring to the $22,000 fee?

      School boards have to struggle with these questions. Many districts have aggressively pursued specialty academies, and some are expensive and out of reach for most families. I haven’t seen much in the way of research to determine how well the academies are working, and what the downsides are. I hope someone decides to do some.

      I hope some important lessons have been learned about transparency and accountability, and good-old fashioned honesty. I hope the board investigates if and trustees were misled by management about the Seycove PAC consultation, and that in future, consultation is taken seriously and conducted authentically.

      I hope a solution can be found that works for all members of the Seycove community, and the hockey program. I’ll be keeping a close eye on how this unfolds.

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