Are Vancouver's Schools on the Endangered List?

While many parents, teachers and students were worried that the "Big One" could devastate their neighbourhood school, it appears the biggest threat to Vancouver's community hubs may be the provincial government and the poorly defined mandate of the Vancouver School Board (VSB).

The VSB has 109 schools in Vancouver, with 68 of these buildings listed on the city's heritage register. When many of these schools were built in the earlier part of the last century, the vision of the political leaders of the day was of long-term investment and pride in these public buildings. However, according to Friends of Charles Dickens spokesperson Annabel Vaughan, there is no clear understanding of where the province and school board are now taking city schools, or if they even recognize them as community assets.

Instead, the VSB and provincial government vision for our schools appears to be much darker. After decades of underfunding and the long overdue need to seismically upgrade aging schools across the city, the answer appears to be a combination of the wrecking ball and cheap, replacement buildings.

According to a VSB report published last September, our city may only have nine of its 64 historic schools left still standing once the seismic mitigation process is complete. In place of these heritage buildings, the city's schools may be systematically reduced in size, unique programming that defines schools will be excluded from these new buildings due to space limitations, and valuable community amenities such as daycare programmes, after-school care and auditoriums will be cut from these neighbourhood anchors says Vaughan.

Unfortunately, Dickens Elementary will be the first victim in the seismic mitigation battle when it is demolished later this year. However, for Vaughan the fight is not yet over. While the main building is certainly lost, the Friends of Charles Dickens are continuing their fight to preserve part of the original 1913 wing, so that it may be used as an amenity hub in the under-serviced eastside neighbourhood.

Moreover, Vaughan believes there is a growing need to share the Dickens experience with other parent and school support groups across the city. As the next wave of seismic mitigation hits schools like Gordon Elementary, Kitsilano High School, Tecumseh Elementary, Queen Mary Elementary and Kitchener Elementary, helping other Vancouver schools escape Dickens fate may be one thing that can be salvaged from the three-year battle that Vaughan and her fellow citizens waged to save their little red school house.

Think City will host a forum this spring on how citizens across the city can develop a vision for renewing schools so as to leave our children and our neighbourhoods with a legacy of iconic public buildings.

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