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Rights + Justice

A Rigged Game: School Closures in Vancouver

The school board’s simplistic formula protects schools on the west side at the expense of less affluent neighbourhoods.

By Aaron Leung 1 Apr 2019 |

Aaron Leung is a geography and political science student at Simon Fraser University, a public education advocate, and past chair of the City of Vancouver children, youth and families advisory committee. Follow him on Twitter at @HiAaronLeung.

The Vancouver School Board is updating its long-range facilities plan. That sounds bland, but what’s really on the table is which schools will face the threat of closure. And which students will be hurt.

I’ve been to most of the committee meetings on the plan and the feedback is overwhelmingly against the board’s approach. Parents, students and stakeholders have all raised concerns. I’ve yet to hear one individual speak in favour of it, and for good reason.

The school board says that the plan is not about school closures and that it’s only meant to “demonstrate they are managing facilities in an effective, economic and efficient way in support of educational goals.”

However, the report evaluates the feasibility of consolidating schools to remove “surplus capacity.” It identifies 16 elementary schools, three annexes and six secondary schools that could theoretically be closed, and their population moved to neighbouring facilities. All but two of them (Point Grey and Prince of Wales) are on the east side.

It may not be a school closure report, but it is a roadmap for school closures.

And the process is rigged. The definition of surplus capacity comes from the education ministry based on how it defines the operating capacity of each school. It says “non-enrolling spaces” — spaces like resource rooms, music rooms and child care spaces that have been converted from standard classrooms included in the school's original operating capacity — are surplus.

Students, teachers and parents, especially parents of children with special needs, would disagree.

Closing schools and eliminating those spaces will have an impact on students’ educational experience, especially those who need extra support. Resource rooms are where they get the help they need to succeed.

The board’s report finds that much of this surplus space is on the east side of Vancouver. That’s where students will experience the biggest impact.

Does this conversation sound familiar? Because we’ve been here before. In 2016, the last long-range facilities plan started a process that recommended many schools on the east side be closed. Only one was on the west side. The community fought back, and thanks to a lot of hard work and some fantastic community organizing, the Vancouver School Board suspended the closure process.

Here we go again.

I value our neighbourhood schools. I know firsthand the resources and help they provide to all of our students. They’re a space that students can call home, with a tight-knit community of support.

School closures are a threat to these important community spaces.

They also raise questions about equity in our public education system, as the criteria set for deciding which schools should be closed can easily disadvantage specific communities.

Parents and school community members concerned about school closures asked me to look at the distribution of special needs students across Vancouver. Those students often benefit from resource rooms — considered surplus space by the school board and provincial education ministry.

We wanted to see if there is a reason eastside schools might have a greater “surplus” non-enrolling space that set them up to be closed.

With some other citizen scientists, we got to work. We used the data to map the number of special needs students across the region — the ones who would benefit from the resource space the school board considered surplus.

The results illuminated a conversation we need to have.

In eastside elementary schools, there is a higher ratio of students with a special needs designation as a share of total school population than on the west side. It is, as we say in the field, a statistically significant spatial correlation.

But the board’s plan suggests more potential school closures on the east side and the loss of non-enrolling space like resource rooms.

Closing schools on the east side will have a disproportionate impact on special needs students, and take resource spaces away from those who need them most.

When a relatively less affluent area faces the most school closures, questions about equity in our school system are raised. I grew up on the east side. I know we have fantastic, supportive communities and neighbours. Neighbourhood schools are one of the pillars of that support.

We analyzed data and used maps to show where schools had the greatest proportion of special needs students who benefited from those “surplus” resource rooms. And they were on the east side, where the most schools faced the risk of closure. Almost all of the schools in blue, with the exception of False Creek, Elsie Roy, Dickens, Osler, and Kingsford-Smith, are at risk of consolidation.

851px version of VancouverElementarySchoolsSpecialNeeds.jpg
When the Vancouver School Board looked at school closures, its narrow definition of ‘surplus space’ included resource rooms for students with special needs. The map shows schools on the east side with the largest number of special needs students — in blue — are at greatest risk of being closed. (Carleton does not appear on this map because the school is closed due to a fire.)

Historically, maps have been a tool for colonizers seeking to claim new territories and expropriate lands. They’ve been used to discriminate against people of colour through the racist process of redlining and marking neighbourhoods as desirable and undesirable. (Re)drawing boundaries is inherently political, although we don’t always treat it that way.

But good maps tell succinct, accurate stories about the places we care about. Bad maps don’t show the full picture.

The maps in the VSB’s long-range facilities plan certainly don’t, because they don’t fully capture the nuance of our communities. Redrawing catchment maps and closing schools are acts of exercising power. We must be cautious, and work within an intersectional lens, when we even consider doing it. The process should include looking at equity in terms of accessibility, class and race.

My time in our public education system taught me to always say truth to power, so here’s my message.

The Vancouver School Board needs to take an equity-based approach to its long-range facilities plan.

Instead of a simplistic “surplus space” model, the board needs to look at many socioeconomic metrics, the needs of school populations and the role of communities — and its mission.

Consolidating — closing — schools where there is a higher population of students who need additional support does not uphold the board’s education goals.

If the Vancouver School Board trustees are committed to reconciliation and social justice, they should go back to the drawing board.

We have an opportunity to do better. Anything short of that doesn’t meet the standard of justice and equity that I learned at my neighbourhood school.  [Tyee]

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