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Vancouver considers keeping older students in high school system

Concern over students buying higher grades from private institutions has prompted a Vancouver school trustee to present a motion to the Vancouver School Board asking for students as old as 20 to be allowed to stay in high school.

Non-Partisan Association (NPA) trustee Sophia Woo says the inspiration came from an article published in The Vancouver Sun last June warning of English Language Learning (ELL) high school students attending private institutions to falsely bump up their grades. When these students graduated, however, they didn't have the language skills to succeed in work or post-secondary education.

In the following days Woo received calls and emails from many immigrant and refugee parents who read the article and were upset their kids had few options other than "buying grades," as the Sun article put it, if they wanted to graduate high school on time.

"If (students) come to Canada when they're between 15 and 18, they may not have enough time to complete all the high school requirements before they reach age 18," Woo told The Tyee, adding it the option would only be open to students who their teachers and counsellors feel are "willing to learn."

"It's important to keep the youth in the regular high school system and environment where they have some choice and the school teacher they're familiar with."

Woo put a notice of motion before the board during their last meeting in June, which meant it couldn't be addressed until the next meeting on Sept.17.

But during the Sept. 17 meeting Woo tried to amend her own motion to include students who had been out of school sick for more than 180 days. A four to four tie defeated the amendment, and the original motion was delayed until the next board meeting on Oct. 1.

Fellow NPA trustee Ken Denike says the reason the motion is continually pushed back is purely political.

"This is Vision (Vancouver) versus the rest of us," he says. "Woo made a good point: this isn’t political, this is a problem with the kids that we need to deal with."

Board chair and Vision Vancouver trustee Patti Bacchus denies the delay is political and says most of the trustees like the idea, it's just too vague. She says Woo and district staff who attended the meeting were unclear on what the current rules are and who's responsibility it is to change it.

"We have a lot of experience asking government to change things, and if we're not very specific they tend to just put it back to us and say 'Here's how the program works,'" she says, adding district staff are doing more research in the interim on the current rules and correct wording for the motion.

"If we're going to do this, we need to do it right. We wanted to defer it to the next board meeting to get that information."

Bacchus says she would like to see the motion expanded to cover mentally and physically ill students, students living in poverty, or students who have children while attending high school.

All three trustees noted students who don't graduate by 18 could attend adult education. But Denike and Woo say they may not be suitable for some students.

"We think adult ed's great, it's got a particular place," says Denike.

"But in terms of a number of these kids that currently have these contacts and interaction going on in the schools, if we break (those) and try to create a new one, it's going to take some time to do that as opposed to staying another year in high school."

But the president of Vancouver's adult educators' sub local, under the Vancouver Elementary Teachers' Association, says many students in this situation prefer adult ed classes over regular high school.

"Because they get more control over their program in adult ed," says Sasha Wiley-Shaw.

"They can load up on courses they feel are most important; they can do things in a quartered system--so they can do four English courses in a school year instead of one--and we have support programs."

Wiley-Shaw says she's in favour of any motion that creates more learning options for kids in the public system, but says the board should be listening to what students want.

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

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