Vancouver School Board faces big questions, tough decisions

Secondary school amenities, French immersion programs among the challenging issues facing trustees

Should all secondary schools have auditoriums and running tracks? Should siblings be able to go to the same schools? Should French immersion programs be moved to schools with excess space?

Those are just a few of the questions the new Vancouver School Board is wrestling with. They’re fundamental, but they’re also doozies.

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The first question — what amenities are necessary in a high school — relates to the replacement of Eric Hamber, a 58-year-old secondary school that is home to 1,700 students near 33rd and Oak. The ministry has agreed to replace it, to make sure it’s safe in an earthquake.

Trouble is, parents and alumni say the $79.3-million new school will not include some things they think are essential, such as an auditorium for band, choir and dance performances and musical theatre productions or space in the school for a lauded fashion program. The plan also calls for a reduction in gym space and the loss of a running track for the next 10 years.

The Eric Hamber Alumni Association and Parent Advisory Council have started a petition, which already has 3,175 signatures. They’re asking school trustees to consult with them before moving forward and to advocate on their behalf with the province.

“A replacement school should not be a downgrade,” the petition says. “If we lose the programs that make Eric Hamber the special school it is, we are effectively getting a safer school, but are doing so at the expense of our children's education.”   

Regarding the second question, about siblings attending the same school, it seems like a no-brainer. But last year, VSB staff came out with a plan to revise school boundaries that did not protect siblings. Parents howled loudly, and it appears VSB has listened. Siblings will now get priority registration if school boundaries are changed, a VSB memo says.

About one-quarter of kindergarten students have siblings attending the same school, so this policy change will come with a big sigh of relief from parents. Also likely to provide relief — the district says in a budget-planning document it is not planning any school closures for the next school year. However, the same document lists “cost of continuing to operate underutilized schools” as a challenge.

The third question, about French immersion, entails a potentially controversial plan to move one program from Kitsilano to the Downtown Eastside. French immersion is a popular choice program, known for waitlists and entrance lotteries. There are more than 200 students on waitlists across B.C., Canadian Parents for French B.C. and Yukon said. But in Vancouver, the program was reduced in size due to a shortage of qualified teachers.

“We call on all school districts to sit down with educators and parents to map out a strategy for growth,” said Glyn Lewis, executive director of the parents’ group. “It is simply unacceptable for some children to be enriched and for others to be turned away in our public education system.”

Henry Hudson elementary on Cornwall, near Maple, is a jam-packed school, with both English and French streams. Because schools downtown are overflowing, many students travel from there to Hudson every day. In fact, the majority of the French immersion students at Hudson live downtown. The school is slated for seismic upgrades, meaning upheaval in the near future. But Strathcona elementary, at East Pender and Princess, has excess space and most of the school is seismically upgraded, so Hudson’s French students could move there. Of course, families who live in Kitsilano may be shocked by the proposal.

No decisions have been made. The VSB is going to consult with the community and another report is expected in the spring.  

Underpinning all of these issues is the changing face of Vancouver, where families are flocking into areas where they can live in condos. Schools in those areas are bursting, while schools in traditional single-family neighbourhoods have excess space. More than $800 million in repairs are needed in Vancouver schools, and 77 of them are deemed unsafe in an earthquake.

These challenges drive the need to move French immersion programs, replace schools like Hamber and change school boundaries. All of this should be addressed in the district’s long-range facilities plan. Although a draft was expected this month, it has now been put off to sometime in the future.

It isn’t going to be easy for VSB’s trustees to navigate these waters, but by breaking down the tough decisions into smaller, incremental choices, taking it slow and consulting with communities, calmer seas may prevail.


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