OUR VIEW: Open Schools and Community

What makes a good neighbourhood? Many things to be sure, but good schools rank at the top of the list. So in many neighbourhoods the sense of alarm was palpable after the Vancouver school board announced a host of schools were under review.

The initial list of eleven schools has now been whittled down, leaving five east side schools on the chopping block: Carleton Elementary, Champlain Heights Annex, Macdonald Elementary, McBride Annex, and Queen Alexandra Elementary.

The presence of good schools is a determining factor for many parents when choosing where to raise their families. After housing affordability, it is consistently cited among the most important factors for parents. 

Losing an anchor school is a huge blow to any neighbourhood, yet as enrollment drops the school board says it is left with few options. Why is this happening? 

Firstly, provincial government cuts have squeezed school board budgets and school boards operate under very tight provincial regulations. On top of this, the housing affordability crisis in Vancouver is pricing many families out of the market. For years, parents have recoiled with sticker shock at Vancouver’s sale and rental prices. Statistics from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation and the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver show housing costs in suburban communities such as Surrey, Langley, Maple Ridge and Port Coquitlam are much less expensive on a per square foot basis. 

While it wouldn’t be credible to say no school should ever be closed, the school board’s argument for some school closures doesn’t achieve a passing grade. Let’s look at the case of Carleton Elementary, Vancouver’s oldest operating school. 

The original building dates to 1896, and subsequent buildings were added in 1908 and 1912. Throughout two world wars, the Great Depression, and the collapse of the Vancouver property market in 1914, sufficient resources were found to operate the school. 

Carleton presently has 380 students. There are 53 elementary schools in Vancouver with fewer students, enrollment at the school is comparable with provincial and district averages, and the school’s good reputation draws students from outside its immediate catchment area. No school of this size has ever been closed in the province of British Columbia. 

However, the school board wants to close Carleton and divide its population among seven surrounding elementary schools. Is it because the board is eyeing the cash windfall they would realize from the sale of the large school site bounded by Kingsway, Joyce and McKinnon streets? 

If so, the decision would be terribly shortsighted. Over the years enrolment has fluctuated due to demographic changes, economic ups and downs, and development trends. 

Unlike many Vancouver neighbourhoods, Collingwood has accepted very significant and rapid densification without complaint, in exchange for better public services and amenities. Further densification in the area and along the Kingsway corridor is coming, and schools now considered expendable will soon be needed. 

Developer Bruno Wall is proposing a large project comprising over 800 apartment units and townhouses on a site on the eastern edge of the city bounded by Vanness, Boundary, Kingsway, and Ormidale. The project is notable because it is being designed and marketed to young families – long neglected by Vancouver developers. 

As Wall wrote to school board chair Patti Bachus, “the addition of 800-plus residential housing units to the neighbourhood will certainly have a positive impact on the need for elementary school spaces as we expect to attract young families to our town homes and two-bedroom apartment units. These units will be moderately priced to appeal to this market segment.” 

To west of Carleton, the city is engaged in the Norquay Village plan, which went to city council in early November after four years of community consultation. The Norquay Village plan is expected to add 1,500 units of apartments, row houses and town houses in the coming years. Unlike the STIR proposals in the West End, the proposed project at 3068 Kingsway hasn’t generated significant local opposition. 

When Vancouver adopted the eco-density charter, the idea was sold on the basis that denser neighbourhoods would be able to support improved public services and neighbourhoods would be given a voice. Closing schools in rapidly growing neighbourhoods is the opposite of what residents were promised, and the Carleton precedent could spell real trouble for eco-density projects in other neighbourhoods. 

What could be done? The provincial rules around development cost levies and community amenity contributions from developers are far too restrictive. If a large development means that new school is required, that’s not a problem – the developer is required to pay for the new school. But using development revenue to provide a little extra operating funding to an existing school – such as Carleton – is not allowed. 

And when will the city, the school board and the province get serious about co-location of services? School sites are natural neighbourhood hubs, and are already publicly-owned land. Why are other levels of government building and leasing new space without first looking at underutilized school sites? Not only would co-location allow for a more seamless delivery of community services, it could help keep some schools afloat financially. 

What has been the impact of allowing students to go to any school in the district rather than their local neighbourhood school? Is it depriving some east side schools of badly needed resources? And if we intend to be the world’s greenest city, shouldn’t most kids be walking to and from school? 

Schools are, first and foremost, places of education. However, they also connect families with each other, public services, local businesses, and the broader community. This community role is not peripheral – any teacher will tell you family involvement and strong community networks help to create an environment for academic excellence. 

Closing Carleton Elementary will have serious impacts on the entire community. Not only will it impact the learning and academic outcomes for students, it will directly affect their families. A range of other community activities, after-school programs and extra-curricular programs will also be affected. In an era when schools and parents are expected to fundraise for all sorts of things that used to be considered basics – everything from computers to playgrounds to field trips – closing the school represents a significant destruction of social capital for current and future students. 

Providing for the needs of students today and tomorrow means embracing a vision where schools, urban planning and development, and other branches of government work to support neighbourhoods. Co-location of public services is not a new idea, but one that seems to be forgotten and re-discovered by each generation. 

Vision Vancouver trustees and their Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) allies need to shift into creative, political problem-solving mode. With majorities on city council, school board, and parks board, and a provincial government that’s never looked weaker, the Vision/COPE majority is in a position to propose some bold solutions and force the province to come on board. 

Voters really do not care whether the province or the school board is to blame, but they will remember who stepped forward with timely solutions. 

Easier to Close Schools, Increase Density on the East Side

Three points about the comments posted here: 1. If you compare the enrollment in west side and east side schools with the number of school-aged children living on the west and east side, I suspect east side students are keeping enrollment up in the west and are saving the west side schools from being closed down. 2. Carleton needs seismic upgrading, a huge cost. 3. You can say the same for schools re: Norquay development comment above."Speaking to Council is not in the playbook of most residents of our immigrant working-class neighborhood." When squeaky wheels are involved over resources, who do you think will win out, the east or west?

Carleton Auditorium

Class of 1984 here, thank you thank you...Short and sweet: The gym with its stratigic location (north west corner of north field) needs to serve the community THIS weekend! It's sub zero temperatures over night! I know every square foot of that school as i went from K to gr7 there, and i can tell you the gym has a kitchen/ large boys and girls hot showers with lockers, a stage, and about 3000 square feet of sleeping space for emergencies for the homeless.And perfect enterance and exit so as to not interfere with school activities. Time is of the essence...

School closures

There is a heavy price to pay in terms of social dislocation for eliminating small local schools in favour of centralisation On casinos the Province is riding on the backs of municipalities skimming off the profits on an enterprise that was imposed upon them

Shameful Disrespect for the Norquay Struggle

The Norquay struggle with city planners, which lasted for four years and eight months, came to an ugly one-sided end on 4 November 2010, with 15 of 23 speakers opposed. (Speaking to Council is not in the playbook of most residents of our immigrant working-class neighborhood.) City Council adopted two severe last-minute density "considerations" that were never even brought before the neighborhood. The entire 1.3 km stretch of Kingsway is now subjected to an FSR of 3.8, a density that exceeds the 3.6 of the 22 storey tower etc. now underway at 2300 Kingsway. We anticipate becoming the East Vancouver density sewer for a constipated heritage density bank. A key desire of the Norquay Working Group was buildings at human scale. This "village," this "neighbourhood centre," has morphed into a developer's dream, an auto oriented density canyon to stretch for about a mile along six-lane truck route Kingsway. The foregoing article is a nasty first effort at revisionism. The disrespect shown to recent history and to Norquay residents, especially the 32% low-income families presently housed, is shameful.

School zoning

The current zoning for all our schools is residential which means that if the land is sold the property can be subdivided into lots for housing. With Council now pushing for more densification in all our neighbourhoods, our public lands such as parks will now come under even more intense pressure. I would therefore suggest that Council should be strongly lobbied to remove this residential zoning from all school properties so that if a school is closed the land must remain in the public domain. The land could be turned into a park, sports field, community garden or any number of public uses. To turn these properties into housing would simply be wrong and very short sighted.

Lets work to repurpose those school buildings

Why is it that we don't question schools, more than occasionally doubting a teacher of the value of a certain field-trip? When I hear that a neighbourhood is loosing it's school, I'm excited at the new possibilities. Every community needs quality education and a good way of enculturating it's young people, but what we call "school", isn't doing either, lets lets stop and think, before we lament it's loss. For thousands of years, communities have raised their own young people, teaching them the core values of the community and helping them develop the skills they need to be part of their community. With corporate support, Governments hijacked this traditional arrangement 150 year ago when compulsory schooling was introduced, to raise larger armies and prepare factory workers for the industries that would modernize the production of everything we use. While human values were cast aside when children were pushed into School-molds, it can easily be argued that it was necessary, at a time when factory workers were in great demand. Today, we really need to ask ourselves why we are still using this archaic model of schooling children. Times have changed a lot since the Prussian Military invented the classic schoolhouse in the 1830's and Western society has surely seen it's share of the change. As a culture, we have been working hard for 40 years to move all our industries to Asia, and to automate what little industry is left here at home. Our current environmental situation has shown us that we need to reinvent every aspect of our society, from the way we get to work to produce things, to the things we produce, and even the way we consume them. At the forefront of this reinvention is the idea of localization, the idea that there is no one-size-fits-all solution and that every community will need to adapt to it's local environment, in a unique way that does not destroy that environment. So why on earth are we still putting kids in straight lines, segregating them by age, training them to work in a box and cranking out row after row of children from the same mold? Why do we continue to label thousands of innocent children as failures, knowing that their self-esteem will be damaged? They are being devalued and they will be ready to serve corporate interest for $8/hour for the rest of their lives., so why would any parent run the risk of sending their kids to school and having this happen? As for the those 380 students loosing their local school, I don 't know what will happen to them. I can guess that 370-some of them will go to the next closest school. And if 2-10 of those kids decide to start a homeschooling collective beside that empty school, then I would say "Great! What an exciting new possibility." Now when it comes to those public building, it would be a terrible shame to sell them off for development. Against that outcome, we all need to be on guard, and working to ensure that those building and lands remain in the public trust. And once they are safe, I would trust any local community to come up with a unique and exciting new use for that public space. And if it was the school a block from my house, I would start urban-farming the full city block of green space, and look to create a learning-resource centre for people of all ages inside the building. To quote the great educator Helen Hughes, I would call it a "Learnary", and hope that people would use it, without being forced, as they do any public library.

why just east side schools?

It puzzles me that all the schools on the list are in east Vancouver. The cost of living west of Cambie or Oak Street is much higher than in most neighbourhoods to the east. If Vancouver's cost of living is really a factor, then one would expect enrollment in the west side schools to have declined rather more sharply than in east Vancouver. So how is it that no west side schools are being considered for closure? Frankly, since the real problem is inappropriate funding from the provincial government, a fair solution would be to close schools in Gordon Campbell and Colin Hansen's ridings until the budget shortfall is met. That's not a serious suggestion: the Vancouver school board should not be partisan in that way. But I do find it strange that no schools in that part of the city remain on the list of possible closures. Surely some of those schools have lower enrollment and less prospect for future enrollment increases than Carleton and other schools that are on the list?

What makes a good community?

try this . . . Building Community: An Economic Approach http://www.commondreams.org/video/2010/11/18-1

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