Vancouver has changed; its approach to schools must change, too

Downtown schools are bursting at the seams as parents opt for urban lifestyle

Vancouver has changed.

It’s no longer a quiet and quaint city, full of families who live in single family homes, with fathers who make a quick commute downtown to get to work.

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Instead, it’s a big, busy city – one where families tend to live in condos downtown, where mom and dad can walk to work. Those who want to live in a house, move out – way out – and spend hours commuting to work.

That change has wreaked havoc on the Lower Mainland’s school systems. In Surrey, where family homes are more affordable, thousands of students are educated in portables. In Vancouver, the downtown schools are full-to-bursting, while larger schools in the more traditional neighbourhoods are emptying out.

It’s no easy thing for a school district to keep up, particularly because they are at the mercy of the provincial government, which isn’t keen to build new schools, or upgrade old ones, in a city with excess school space in some areas.

But there is no excess space downtown, in Kitsilano or in False Creek. In fact, local children have to win lotteries to get into neighbourhood schools, which have perpetual waitlists. That’s why the VSB came up with a plan to adjust school boundaries in those neighbourhoods.

Any change to school boundaries is going to be painful, but none more so than when it affects parents who have moved into a neighbourhood specifically to be near the school or when siblings might end up at two different schools.

Shirley Anthony, mom to Vivien, 4, and Evelyn, 1, exemplifies our changing city. She and her husband moved into Yaletown before they even had kids but the local school – Elsie Roy elementary – was a definite selling feature. The couple chose to live downtown because they could both walk to work. They had demanding careers – before deciding to stay home with the kids, she was in corporate communications and he is the vice-president of corporate development for a mining company. They didn’t want to add a major commute to their already very busy days, especially because they wanted children.

“We are literally a block away (from Elsie Roy). We play there every day at the playground. We can see the school from our house,” Anthony said.

Vivien will be starting kindergarten this fall, but she didn’t get a space at Elsie Roy. Her mom said 79 students applied for 40 spots, with siblings getting 17 of those spots. Vivien is No. 12 on the wait list and Anthony is still hopeful she will eventually get in, if not for kindergarten then for Grade 1.

“We are so close to being able to get in, I can almost smell it,” Anthony said. 

But if the proposed boundary changes go through, her daughter will be removed from the waitlist because the family’s home will be in the Crosstown school catchment. And, even if Vivien does get in, her younger sister would still be considered cross boundary and would only get in after the in-catchment students.

Anthony’s five-minute walk to Elsie Roy would be replaced by a nearly 20-minute trek through the tunnel under BC Place, which is darkly lit, loud and home to some of the city’s homeless population.

“I cannot even imagine taking my daughter under there,” she says. And not only that, if the two kids are in different schools, she would have to drop them off at two different places at the same time. Further, she says, the number of high-density developments that are planned for the area will make the boundary change irrelevant within a short time. 

“You almost have to build another Crosstown to service the area,” she says. “They are ripping us out of the neighbourhood.”

About 120 people have signed a petition created by Anthony urging the VSB to stop the changes and another 363 people have signed a petition urging the board to grandfather in siblings.

VSB’s director of facilities Jim Meschino said VSB has tried many strategies to find more space. At False Creek elementary, changing rooms are being converted into classrooms, he said. They’ve placed as many portables as possible wherever they can. At Elsie Roy, portables aren’t an option because the city owns the land and the school board uses only the air space, Meschino said.

He’s not sure if the proposed changes would eliminate student lotteries, but he is certain they will alleviate wait lists.

The district has been asking the province for years for new elementary schools in Coal Harbour and in Olympic Village and a new, bigger school at King George secondary.

Board chairwoman Janet Fraser said she has been impressed with parents’ passion for their communities.

“We are definitely hearing the concerns that are being raised,” she said.

Those concerns have had an effect. After weeks of advocacy by Anthony and others, on Monday night the VSB put a halt on the changes, which will now be revised and brought back to the board in January 2019, with changes held off until September 2020.

Fraser said the extra time will be used to consider what parents have said, including the concerns about siblings being separated when boundaries change.

There’s no going back. We don’t live in pre-Expo 86 Vancouver anymore and our schools need to catch up. Unless the province comes through tomorrow with the money for three new downtown schools, changes are necessary. Done right – by listening to parents and tweaking the changes – the new boundaries should be a win for everyone.

Members of the public can register to speak at the VSB meeting on June 13 and a final decision will be made on June 25.  Comments can also be made by emailing


Tracy Sherlock writes about education and social issues. She can be reached at



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