When Charles Menzies visited his son's school during lunch hour, he expected a traffic jam — not gridlock.
"When you walked through the hallways at lunch hour, you just couldn't move," said Menzies, a University of B.C. anthropology professor whose son graduated University Hill Secondary in 2009. "Any high school during a break is going to be crowded. But this was really like a Manhattan rush hour."
When Menzies' son attended the high school, then located on Acadia road on the University of B.C. campus, the facility was badly overcrowded. In 2012, 592 students were packed into a building designed for 400. The feeder elementary school is currently more than 100 students over capacity. Earlier this year, University Hill students moved into a new school building along 16th avenue, with room for 800 students, and a new elementary school is planned on the site of the former high school. But these improvements come after almost ten years of consistent complaints about overcrowding. Packed schools like those on the University of B.C. campus, have bucked the trend in the Vancouver School District.
Enrolment has declined by more than 4,300 since 2003, leaving many schools trying to make up the shortfall. But even as the Vancouver School Board looks to fill under-used facilities — by leasing to private schools and senior's organizations — pockets of students around the city continue to face crowded conditions in their neighbourhood schools. Some are bussed out of catchment, while those who do get a spot face crowded classrooms and lunch hours spent sitting on the floor.
Under the B.C. Ministry of Education's current arrangement, school boards do not receive funding for new schools until there are enough kids in the area, said Vision Vancouver school board chair Patti Bacchus. "The policy is to wait until the population is there, to wait until the students can be lined up and counted before they build a school," said Bacchus. "So we know the units are going in, that they have multiple bedrooms, which we take to mean families, and in some cases the kids are already there, and often the ministry doesn't come forward with funding for years." In the past few years, the province has approved funding for new schools at the University of B.C. and in Yaletown — most recently for a new school at Abbott Street and Expo Blvd.
Bacchus said this should ease overcrowding, but she still worries that school construction will not keep pace with new development. Unless the province rethinks how and when it funds new school construction, she said, school crowding will soon be common around new developments in south Vancouver — like the Marine Gateway project and the potential redevelopment of Oakridge Mall. Menzies said those areas may be in for the same experience his son had at the old University Hill Secondary. "When the realtors go to sell these buildings, they say 'near a great school for your kids,'" he said. "That's true, but they don't tell you there's a waiting list to get in, the schools are over crowded, and by the time your development is finished, the kids will be bussing again."
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