Parents from a Surrey elementary school are asking for improvements in their children’s learning experiences as classes were being held in gymnasiums and staff rooms, due to the school, and others surrounding it, being extremely over-capacity.
Walnut Road Elementary in the Fleetwood neighbourhood has started the school year off with a lack of classroom space that even the nine portables on-site can not address.
“We keep hearing that there are long-term plans for the district,” said Saakshi Khanna, co-chair of the Walnut Road Elementary Parental Advisory Committee.
“But all we see is portable after portable getting put on the school property year after year and we are up to (needing) 12 portables this year.
“We have seen decreased attention-span, reduced peer interaction, stress, anxiety, behavior issues and emotional challenges.”
The petition created by members of the PAC is addressed to Surrey’s Superintendent Mark Pearmain and Education Minister Rachna Singh and was posted to change.org on Thursday, Sept. 7. It had received 684 signatures by Friday afternoon.
Playground areas, gravel fields and parking spaces are being used at multiple school sites for portables, said Laurie Larsen, chair of the school board.
“It does take time to install them all; trying to find room for them and trying to relocate them from one school to the other,” Larsen explained.
“It is a concern for me, it is a concern for the parents. I live in the area so I am well aware of the issues at the school.”
Walnut Road has a capacity for 542 students, but actual enrolment sits at around 800, she added.
To prepare for this year’s increase of 2,700 students district-wide so far, Larsen said Surrey school district had to relocate 57 portables, a large increase from previous years. Because of this increase, delays are being seen at a number of schools that are waiting on their batch of portables, including Walnut Road Elementary.
The situation at the school is not unusual, the board chair added. During the first week, other rooms of a school are used as classroom space until students are properly sorted into their permanent classes. Since school started, make-shift classrooms are still being used but the staff room is no longer one.
“There have been plans (to expand) that school site and other ones… unfortunately there’s other schools that are maybe a little higher up on the priority,” Larsen said.
About half of a gravel field at Walnut Road is being used to store portables, while at Edgewood Elementary in South Surrey, part of the playground space is being used, she added.
“We cannot neglect it anymore. We can’t keep using the play areas of the kids and putting portables there,” Khanna said.
“Everyone keeps saying that play-based learning is the best learning that happened at elementary schools. If we are losing the grounds that we have at our schools for education to these portables, that is definitely impacting our kids. They’re resilient, they adjust but is that really conducive to a learning environment?”
An area-school, Coyote Creek Elementary, had additional space open to students in 2021 but the school is now crowded once again. The new Skytrain line is making the Fleetwood neighbourhood unpredictable for the district, the board chair added.
“Even Ta’talu Elementary, to open in 2025, by the time it gets here it’ll be full too,” Larsen said, explaining that new schools and additions are built according to the information available at the time.
“It takes five years to get approved and go through all of the things and building. By the time that’s done, there’s a couple more townhouse (complexes) going up.”
While one more portable was added to Walnut Road last week, and another two are expected in the next week or so, Khanna said the petition is not going away.
“We are going to expand it to other schools as well…our neighbourhood is bursting at the seams,” she said, emphasizing that long-term solutions are what is desired from the PAC.
Meanwhile at the first school board meeting of the year on Wednesday (Sept. 13), Surrey’s trusteees received a report they requested at the end of last school-year, to outline what double-decker portables would look like.
“Our facilities department has been looking into this and at a high level, double-stacked portables can be built,” said Dave Riley, director of the district’s capital projects office.
“They can provide the necessary accessibility requirements and they can be built to meet the building codes.”
At the end of last year, students were learning in 310 portables across Surrey and White Rock. The figure jumped to 335 this month, at the start of the 2023-24 school year, according to school district data.
The new two-level portables the district is looking at would cost about $400,000 plus installation, permit and engineering costs, Riley said, double the cost of the portable units the district currently uses. Another option the district is considering are prefabricated modules, which would have plumbing and heating built in.
Larsen said that the modules or double-stacked portables would begin to be installed at schools next September.
Trustee Terry Allen requested for the information acquired by the district to be shared with the Education Ministry.
“We made a big deal of double stacking portables and they weren’t necessarily happy about it but I think that at the very least, we need to give them the information that we’ve received. I don’t think it’s a dead issue,” Allen said.
“If we’re faced with providing these portables and the double cost because we’re stacking them, ultimately we’ll bankrupt this board. There’s no question about that.
“I think we have to continue to make the government aware that classroom space in Surrey has now reached that critical level.”