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July 7, 2012 / Carol Gibson

A skeptical view of Vancouver’s great education divide


Illustration of boundaries for Vancouver high school catchments (source: Globe and Mail)

Vancouver’s “class war” is being waged using misleading stats and outdated perceptions

The Globe and Mail article plays to an enduring debate in Vancouver. This debate is fueled by an assumption that schools located east of Main Street are under-served and educate a vulnerable population; those located west of Main Street are over-served and serve a privileged population. The Globe and Mail article provides data that seems to support this assumption and its conclusions may be embraced without question. This would be both foolhardy and detrimental to public education in Vancouver.

I am skeptical. Experience and an analytical pre-disposition motivate me always to question the data.

Fifty years of lived experience in Vancouver causes me to marvel at the pace of change. It also causes me identify the many effects of change that seem to be overlooked by those who: first, would perpetuate a concept of a city divided eastside and westside; and second, seem to prefer debate that remains static despite the changes.

Vancouver is a city of abundant and diverse neighborhoods – some east of Main St. some west of Main St. There are also neighborhoods north of 12th Avenue and South of 12th Avenue; neighborhoods north of 47th Avenue and south of 47th Avenue.

In fact, the Vancouver School Board (VSB) abandoned an eastside/westside boundary mapping and nomenclature some time ago. Recognizing significant changes in the city, the VSB created boundaries that define regions as North, South and Centre. The Centre region includes Main Street between Terminal and 49th Avenue and extends from Dunbar St. to Boundary Road. “Cross-boundary enrolment” in this context would look very different than that presented in the Globe and Mail article.

The Globe and Mail graphs claim to represent migration of students from eastside schools to westside schools. The westside schools are supposedly over-subscribed because they offer “choice programs” that are not available to students on eastside. Therefore, the eastside students must travel west to attend these supposedly preferred programs.

What the graph better represents is the effects of a real estate explosion on the UBC campus that began about 20 years ago. The population explosion of families with children living on campus who require access to schools motivated the VSB and an NPA Board to undertake the UBC to Dunbar Community Consultations. The process brought attention to the critical need for new schools at UBC.

For over 10 years elementary students have been bussed from the UBC campus to surrounding westside schools. Secondary students travel by public transport off the UBC campus to surrounding westside secondary schools most of which appear on the Globe and Mail graph as being “over-capacity”.  They are over-capacity, but not entirely for the reasons suggested by the authors of the Globe and Mail article.

The UBC to Dunbar consultation process was productive. From it came the concept of “Neighborhood Centres of Learning”, an ability for Vancouver and other districts to cooperate with communities to use “open capacity” in schools for purposes that serve the broader educational needs of a community such as before and after school care, daycare, etc.

As a result of the consultations, UBC, VSB  and government agreed to the renovate the NRC building to accommodate secondary students from grades 9 to 12 and also to renovate the exiting secondary school to accommodate students from kindergarten to grade 8. The renovation of the NRC is underway and others will follow. When this is completed schools that currently accept overflow from University Hill and appear to be “over-capacity” may look more like those currently on the eastside that appear to have “open capacity”.

Looking at the numbers in the Globe and Mail article, I am at a loss to know to what they refer.

The total enrolment in Vancouver is around 50,000 students attending elementary and secondary schools. Even if I assume that the article includes only secondary students, the numbers do not add up.

It is suggested that there are 9,992 secondary students who live on the eastside. The article claims that 13.6% of these – 1359 students – attend schools on the westside. It is also suggested that 13,287 students live on the westside and 3.1% or 412 of these attend schools on the eastside. The numbers and the analysis don’t make sense.

Even if I assume the article refers only to secondary students, the claim is that total secondary enrolment in Vancouver is 9992 plus 13,287 equals 23,279 – almost 7000 fewer students than actual secondary enrolment in 2010-11.

In 2010-11 there were just under 30,000 secondary school students attending Vancouver secondary schools.  About 17,000 (57%) of these students were enrolled in eastside secondary schools; about 13,000 (43%) were enrolled in westside secondary schools.

Regardless of any other concerns I may have with the analysis, it does not include 7000 secondary students or 23% of the total secondary enrolment in Vancouver. For that reason alone the numbers, percentages and conclusions are suspect.

There is movement of students from east to west and from west to east. There are also equal number of secondary schools on either side of Main Street – 9 east of Main and 9 west of Main. Further, if I quantify and examine the distribution of  true “choice programs” (mini-schools, hockey schools, IB programs, secondary French Immersion, fine arts programs, robotics programs, etc.), there is virtually equal distribution of such programs between eastside and westside schools.

If we are going to debate the value of “choice programs” in schools, first we need to have accurate and reliable data which this article does not provide, then we need to examine other variables that influence “over capacity” as well as “open capacity” including growth in new neighborhoods as well as  growth or contraction in existing neighborhoods. Finally, we need to focus on the many reasons why students select the so-called “programs of choice”.

A better question to address is: Why do we assume in 2012, that a one-size-fits-all approach to secondary education is the preferred model or that secondary students should be prevented from selecting programs that better meet their individual learning needs?

– post by Carol Gibson, originally published by City Caucus on April 25, 2012.


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