Parents raise concerns as Vancouver School Board mulls French immersion annex closure

West Side’s Queen Elizabeth Annex has been on the closure list before

A tiny little school nestled on the edge of Pacific Spirit Park is the latest Vancouver school to face threat of closure.

Queen Elizabeth Annex, on Crown Street near King Edward, is a French immersion annex — a small school for kindergarten through Grade 3.

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Vancouver School Board trustees voted to consider the school’s closure last week, saying the French school board needs the space and the QEA students can all fit into nearby Jules Quesnel elementary, where QEA students already go for Grades 4 to 7.

For QEA parents Kate Hood and Rebecca Pitfield the idea of closing the school is “infuriating.”

“We’ve already heard that there are families now after this news who are thinking of leaving our school,” Hood said. “When you’re continuously told that your school is going to be closing, it’s hard to build confidence in a parent community.”

The annex was also on a school closure list in 2016 and in 2008.  

Both Hood and Pitfield have preschoolers who plan to attend the annex, children at the annex and older children who have moved on to Jules Quesnel elementary, where they say all flexible space will be lost if the schools combine.

VSB chairwoman Janet Fraser says trustees have to make a lot of difficult decisions and that education comes with a lot of emotion.

“Like many things in the VSB, this is a complex issue because there are certain things which are within our control and there are things that are beyond our control,” Fraser said.  

She’s talking about money for building new schools and making older schools safer in an earthquake. The ministry makes those decisions, not the VSB. The VSB has been looking for ways to pay some of those expenses itself, but in May the board voted to take school closures off the table and it has a policy against selling school lands.

“The VSB is under a lot of pressure from the ministry,” Pitfield said. “They’re desperate to get these schools up to snuff on seismic upgrading.”

Forty schools in Vancouver are at high risk in an earthquake, and the district pays millions extra each year to keep those old schools maintained.

The French school board, the Conseil Scolaire Francophone, educates students whose first language is French, which is different from French immersion, where students learn to speak French. The Canadian Constitution guarantees that people who speak French as a first language and their children have the right to be educated in French.

In Vancouver, CSF schools are extremely over crowded, particularly on the city’s West Side. In 2016, the B.C. Supreme Court ordered B.C. to help the CSF get school sites and pay for leases in some areas, including the West Side of Vancouver.

This is where QEA comes in — the province looked at Vancouver schools and picked the annex as a good site for a new French school, based on its location, the low number of students who attend the school (68) and the fact the school is rated as unsafe in an earthquake, a staff memo to the VSB says.

QEA and its site would be leased to the CSF, the memo says. The CSF already leases three VSB annexes that have recently closed: Laurier, Henderson and Maquinna. Those annexes closed when parents chose to register their children elsewhere.

Fraser sees QEA as a “unique circumstance,” similar to the deal the board made with BC Hydro to sell the land underneath Lord Roberts Annex in the West End for $75 million. BC Hydro will build an underground substation and the VSB will use the money to build two new schools.

Shaun Kalley, president of the Vancouver District Parents’ Association, says the entire debate may be unnecessary because the city has plans for a new French-language school in the Heather Lands. He’s concerned the school board isn’t being transparent about why it wants to close the annex.

“It seems like rather than the stated rationale being the reason that trustees are interested in pursuing this, it’s the opportunity to see a capital investment in the district,” Kalley said. “I have to assume that the ministry has put some sort of compensation on the table for turning QEA over to the CSF.”  

Pitfield has similar concerns, saying VSB has to close the school before they can even begin to negotiate a lease.

“What happens when they close it? Are they going to give it to the highest bidder?” Pitfield said.

About 738 people have signed a petition to keep the annex open, and the earliest QEA would close is July 2020.

It’s the small size of QEA that makes it such a special place, Pitfield and Hood say.

“It’s amazing for kids with anxiety or any sensitivities,” Pitfield said. “When you’re in kindergarten to Grade 3, the most important thing is a nurturing environment and you can’t buy that.”

School closures are never fun — I certainly don’t envy VSB trustees in having to make this decision. As Pitfield says, they’re under pressure to get schools upgraded, but dependent on the provincial government for the money. The government owes the CSF a school, and VSB has excess capacity — it’s easy enough to connect the dots. But losing these small schools will be a loss for generations of students, and it will be impossible to get them back.

tracy.sherlock@gmail.com

 

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