Melanie Mark: Our schools are more than just buildings

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A young girl holds a sign in support of Queen Alexandra Elementary School.

This piece by Melanie Mark was first published in the Georgia Straight Sept. 26, 2016.

This September, my daughters returned to school. One of them had a relatively easy transition reuniting with her peers, while my oldest faced a more challenging transition navigating high school for the first time.

For students, parents, families, and teachers, September is always exciting, stressful, and chaotic, but my constituents are faced with even more stress this year while they wait to find out if their child’s school is going to close.

In June 2016, the Vancouver school board announced that in the midst of a $25-million deficit in funding from the provincial government, 12 schools (11 in East Vancouver) may be forced to close their doors.

Tonight (September 26), school trustees will be forced to decide which schools from this list will be considered for closure, with a final decision scheduled for December.

Christy Clark’s education minister, Mike Bernier, says these schools need to close because enrollment is decreasing and tax dollars need to be used wisely. The Clark government has threatened to withhold essential seismic capital funding unless schools work toward reaching an arbitrary 95-percent-capacity target. However, they were forced to back down from that ultimatum after seeing some bad headlines during this lead-up to the next election.

But our schools are still under threat.

Three schools serving Vancouver-Mount Pleasant families are on the list: Gladstone Secondary, Admiral Seymour Elementary, and Queen Alexandra Elementary. Due to the relentless advocacy of community members, Britannia was recently removed from it. But the fight is far from over.

Some of the most vulnerable young people rely on these schools. The fact that these are nearly all East Side schools leaves many students and families feeling targeted.

Even the Clark government admits that parents and students deserve better, so why is it that under the B.C. Liberals, per-student funding has gone from the second-best in the country to the second-worst?

Why is the Clark government ignoring the work of the representative for children and youth and the non-partisan Select Standing Committee on Children and Youth that argue about the critical role schools play when it comes to supporting and protecting vulnerable children and youth?

Instead of investing in our young people, more than 240 schools across rural B.C. and urban centres have closed their doors during the B.C. Liberals’ watch, as New Democrat education spokesperson Rob Fleming has highlighted.

The fact is, to thousands of children throughout B.C., schools are more than just buildings. They provide a sense of belonging. They foster dynamic and vibrant communities and support our children through hard times.

Students are out in full force for the Save Our Schools campaign, with myself and my East Side colleagues Adrian Dix and Shane Simpson collecting petition signatures, holding rallies, and sharing stories.

In the last month alone, community members in Vancouver-Mount Pleasant collected nearly 3,000 petition signatures demanding more funding for education to keep our schools open.

Gladstone offers a myriad of unique programs, from robotics to dance—making it one of the “top 10” public schools in Canada. No school with Gladstone’s enrollment has ever been closed in B.C. Closing its doors means that students will be dispersed to five other schools, separating students from their support networks.

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Hundreds attend the VSB’s board meeting, held at Tupper Secondary School Sept. 27th, to demonstrate their support for our public schools.

At Queen Alexandra family school, 33 percent of students are aboriginal, 40 percent are English-language learners, and 29 percent have special needs. Admiral Seymour’s demographics are similarly diverse. Their students are reliant upon an education that includes tailored, culturally relevant supports, best provided by their experienced staff. These schools have extensive extracurricular programming that can’t just be exported.

Christy Clark likes to leave parents with the impression that her government believes in families first.

Yet the families I meet feel like they’re left in limbo, hoping that it’s not their school, their music or gifted programs, or their child’s counselling and cultural-support services on the chopping block.

When we close a school, we aren’t just closing a building. We’re eliminating its ambitions, its values, its potential. We’re actually trampling the community’s spirit and, in essence, its collective identity.

Tonight, Monday (September 26), the Vancouver school board will be forced by the Clark government into making some difficult decisions.

In the interim, make no mistake: my colleagues and I will continue to stand in solidarity with students and families impacted by these potential closures. We will be relentless in our efforts to stand up to Christy Clark by ensuring that our children’s rights are at the centre.