Until February, Terry Hill had been out of school for 38 years. Nine weeks ago, the man who left school in Grade 8 and spent decades struggling with drug and alcohol addiction, enrolled at the Vancouver School Board’s Downtown Eastside Education Centre. He completed Grade 11 English and sees improving his education as key to his path out of poverty.
He doesn’t want the Downtown Eastside Education Centre to close.
“I live in that area. I live on a $900 a month income. I’m trying to get back into society,” Hill told trustees at a public consultation meeting about the VSB’s preliminary budget for 2015-2016 Tuesday night.
“It sounds like a great option saying go off to Gladstone, go down to South Hill, but for us it’s not really an option because we feel out of place in those areas,” he continued.
To balance next year’s budget, the VSB is considering closing its Hastings and Downtown Eastside education centres, shrinking its youth programs from four to two locations, discontinuing the English language programs it offers at seven elementary schools and offering self-paced courses only at the Gathering Place.
Hill was one of more than a dozen speakers who asked the board to find savings elsewhere. More than one said they wouldn’t be able to study at another location because they couldn’t afford bus fare. Adult education was the most talked about item at the consultation.
The VSB faces a budget shortfall of $8.52 million for 2015-2015. The district estimates proposed changes to its adult education offerings could save the VSB $526,000 in 2015-2016, and $1.59 million per year thereafter.
Adult education falls outside the VSB’s core mandate of offering kindergarten to Grade 12 education, the preliminary budget report states. The VSB offers credit programs for adults upgrading academic courses, improving their English language skills or pursuing an adult graduation diploma. The VSB operates five adult education centres and four youth programs for students aged 16 to 19. These locations offer term-based courses and self-paced learning. The VSB also runs literacy outreach programs at seven elementary schools.
The adult education courses the province funds have dwindled since 2010 and the VSB reports a corresponding decline in enrolment.
Rob Schindel, VSB director of instruction, told the Courier that in 2010-2011, the district saw the equivalent of 2,400 full-time adult education students. This year, enrolment is 1,300 and the projection for 2015-2016 is 1,100.
Schindel said the board has moved to reduce program costs, but adult education continues to run a deficit, which was $2.92 million for 2013-2014.
VSB staff propose closing the Downtown Eastside and Hastings education centres. They operate, respectively, at 44 per cent and 67 per cent capacity.
Class size averages are less than 20 in the adult education program. The board recommends establishing a class size minimum of 26.
Schindel noted rooms at the Gathering Place can barely accommodate 18 students, so offering regular classes there isn’t cost effective. Instead, the board proposes only offering self-paced learning, solely at the Gathering Place.
More than one speaker said easy access to self-paced learning as well as term-based classes has been vital to their progress towards a higher-paying career while they work.
As with overall enrolment for adult education, enrolment in self-paced courses has declined over the past three years, and the ratio of staff to students is higher. In 2013-2014, the student/teacher ratio ranged from the equivalent of four full-time students to one teacher, to 17 students per teacher.
Eighteen-year-old Ryan Wiggs told the board Tuesday night that mainstream education didn’t work for him. He can work to help support his family while studying at his own pace at Collingwood Neighbourhood House, spending more time on subjects he struggles with and less time on those that come quickly.
“I’ve gained the skills to really manage my time in a critical way,” Wiggs said.
He’s volunteered in the neighbourhood house’s kitchen and enjoys having a connection to his community.
Julie Linkletter, president of the board of the neighbourhood house, echoed Wiggs’s sentiments. She noted the program has operated there since 2002 and the VSB covers the cost of the teacher and teaching assistant but doesn’t pay for use of classroom, art room, kitchen or other spaces.
The elementary literacy outreach program operates in seven schools. Parents typically drop children off and linger to improve their English language skills.
Schindel said this program accounts for the smallest proportion of the adult education program’s students. If this program is eliminated, students could learn at the remaining education centres.
Lora McElhinney, a case manager at new-START Bridging VEEES, which provides services for women dealing with violence and abuse, spoke with a woman she’d worked with who now attends Hastings Education Centre, at her side.
“There is a continuum and a responsibility we have to not to pit children’s education against adult education,” McElhinney said. “When a woman in our program gets her GED or her adult diploma or graduates from college or university, or perhaps does all three, this has ripple effects for her children and community.”
Public consultation on a revised version of the budget is to happen at the Vancouver School Board building at 1580 West Broadway, April 27, starting at 7 p.m.