By Tracy Sherlock, Vancouver Sun
SURREY — Metro Vancouver’s school districts are wrestling with enrolment issues.
In neighbourhoods where new, dense, family-friendly developments are being built, schools are bursting, while in more mature, stable neighbourhoods, schools are emptying out.
In Vancouver and Richmond, the population shift means as many as 25 schools could be closed, while in places like Surrey and Coquitlam, demand is unrelenting as young families move out to the suburbs and more affordable, smaller homes.
In certain Surrey neighbourhoods — where there has been significant new development — elementary schools are overflowing. One of those areas, South Newton, includes six elementary schools that feed into Sullivan Heights secondary school. Projections by the Surrey school district show by 2021, the group of schools in the neighbourhood near 64th Avenue between 136th and 152nd streets will be short 1,431 spaces.
One of those elementary schools, Woodward Hill, has both French Immersion and English students. Today, it’s two-thirds French and one-third English, a ratio that district staff would like to reverse over the next eight or nine years to make room for students living close to the school. To do that, they propose having just one French kindergarten in 2017, instead of the usual two. About half of the kids in French Immersion come from out of the catchment area.
Cindy Dalglish is a parent of a French Immersion student at Woodward Hill. She has been spearheading an effort to stop the changes to French Immersion, saying that reducing the number of French Immersion spaces at Woodward Hill won’t help the overall space shortage in Surrey schools.
“It is so very clear the Surrey school district is under an immense amount of pressure to come up with seats for students out of thin air,” Dalglish said. “The development practices of the City of Surrey and the lack of collaboration that takes place between the city, the province, and the district all play a role in where we are at today, which is that we are far over capacity and don’t have enough school seats for all of the students currently and in the future.”
The three neighbourhoods with elementary schools at or beyond capacity — South Newton, Clayton and Grandview Heights — are home to many new townhouse complexes, which have significantly higher density than neighbourhoods with mostly single-family homes. Changing the number of spaces in French is just one strategy used by the district to manage space at the schools — they’ve also changed school boundaries several times and have opened three new elementary schools in the neighbourhood in the past 10 years.
Another new elementary school for the area will be added to the district’s capital plan this year, said Doug Strachan, Surrey school district spokesman. A six-classroom addition is also slated for Woodward Hill elementary and expanding the high school is also a priority, he said.
“We have seen it, for instance in Clayton, where schools have had four portables on opening day,” Strachan said. “All we can do is to develop the projects with the data and the city and then put in our capital plan request. Along with the challenge of getting the funding, there is also the challenge of the time that it takes. There’s always a lag. It takes two years to build a school, if you’ve already got the land.”
Surrey is home to many of the newly arrived Syrian refugees. Strachan said the district is encouraging people working with the refugees to help them find homes in Surrey neighbourhoods with more stable housing — areas with a lot of single-family homes and little new development — because schools in those neighbourhoods have space to accommodate the newcomers.
Dalglish has a younger child that she hopes will be able to attend French Immersion at Woodward Hill and the district has promised that siblings will be guaranteed spaces.
“I’m not fighting this for her, I’m fighting it for the program and the capacity in the neighbourhood overall,” Dalglish said. “Although the district won’t say it, we believe this is the start of phasing out of French Immersion at Ecole Woodward Hill.” Reducing the French program is a “drop in the bucket” for the overall capacity problems, Dalglish said.
Surrey’s goal is to continue to accommodate the demand for French Immersion and there is no plan to reduce it overall, Strachan said. There is a new French Immersion program opening this fall at Cougar Creek elementary, so there won’t be a net loss of French spaces in the district, he said.
Dalglish encouraged people to speak out about the issue of overcrowding in Surrey schools, either by writing to school trustees or speaking out on Placespeak, which is a tool used by the Surrey School District to get feedback.