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Unaffordability, not indie schools, to blame for declining VSB enrolment

The Vancouver School Board received some preliminary data analysis on student enrolment numbers yesterday, and it looks like the rumoured mass exodus to independent schools is not to blame for declining school populations.

In a memo to the Board's Management Coordinating Committee (Committee I) dated June 10, Assistant Superintendent Scott Robinson said using students' Personal Education Numbers to track their movements into and out of the school district shows only 0.4 per cent of students left for independent schools from September 2009 to February 2012.

While more elementary students left public schools for independent ones than vice versa, the situation reversed itself in secondary schools where more students came from independent schools than left for the private institutions.

But the PEN data doesn't tell the whole story, which is why the Vancouver School Board (VSB) is doing brief exit surveys with families who move take their kids out of VSB schools. The district has completed 150 of these surveys so far out of the 575 parents they asked to survey. Although final analysis won't take place until the fall, early numbers show Vancouver housing prices are the main culprit.

"Seventy-five per cent of parents said that's the biggest reason for them. The affordability crisis in Vancouver is significant and serious, so it was no surprise to us," said Mike Lombardi, vice-chair of the VSB and chair of Committee I.

The VSB currently teaches slightly fewer than 84 per cent of the city's school-aged population, but like all B.C. school districts with the exception of Surrey, enrolment has been steadily declining in the past 10 years. Lombardi says district staff assures the board enrolment will begin to rise again in three to five years, but given the provincial government's enrolment-based funding formula, the district has had to cut programs and staff because of the decline.

Housing prices are not something the district has control over, so Lombardi says they're looking for other ways to attract students from other districts and independent schools into the Vancouver district.

"Many parents from Burnaby (and) Richmond would be interested in (sending their kids) to our programs, as we get inquiries all the time about our mini-schools. We want to make sure we've got responsive, responsible programs that will be attractive to and meeting the needs of kids," he said.

"The policy in British Columbia is that you can go to any school in the province as long as there's room for you, and we intend to make sure that everybody is aware of what's available in Vancouver to meet student needs."

The VSB is also surveying parents of children in all the city's pre-school, day care and Strong Start programs who could potentially send their kids to VSB schools. They want to know what they’re looking for in a school, with the hope they can make the necessary changes to provide it. So far that survey has collected 600 responses. There are no official numbers but the district estimates there are currently 10,000 children in pre-school programs in the city.

Assistant Superintendent Robinson will release a report later this fall with final survey results, analysis, and staff programming recommendations. But Lombardi says he's already hearing from parents that the availability of childcare at a VSB school is a major factor in choosing that school. It's an issue the district is already working on.

"Our goal is to put a childcare space in every elementary school in the district. We've got one in half of our district now, but we're going to have a vigorous, robust plan next year to work with the city and province to increase the number of childcare spaces in our schools," he said.

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee Solutions Society. Follow her on Twitter.

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