Growing pains: Vancouver parents question school board's ability to plan for growth

Parents facing kindergarten wait lists are questioning the city's ability to plan for growth. The city agrees it missed the mark when planning for schools in growing residential areas, but now it's better prepared to welcome families.

City says it didn't expect young families to move into condo-rich areas like downtown, but now knows better

Eight Vancouver schools have wait lists for kindergarten enrolment this year. (bionicteaching via photopin cc)

When Jennifer Cox and her husband bought their East Vancouver home more than two years ago, the nearby school was at the centre of their utopian future. 

Lord Selkirk Elementary was only three blocks away from their house. Their children could easily be dropped off — a huge bonus for busy parents with full-time jobs in the bio-tech sector. 

But when Cox tried to enrol her daughter Elyse in kindergarten for September last year, she was shocked to be put on a wait list for both early French immersion and the regular English program at her catchment school. 

"At the time it was definitely really stressful and really just made me question the foresight of the Vancouver School Board in letting this situation happen," she said. 

Lord Selkirk is one of eight Vancouver schools with wait lists for children entering kindergarten in their catchment area this year. That doesn't include schools with wait lists for specialty programs like early French immersion or Montessori. 

Those waits have prompted parents like Cox to question the ability of the school board and the city to plan for growth. 

They say city officials have the tools — namely census data and community plans — to ensure families in growing neighbourhoods have adequate amenities like schools.

The city says an unexpected shift in young families moving into growing residential areas like the downtown and Cambie corridor is at the root of the problem — a shift it's better attuned to now as it plans for new neighbourhoods. 

'The government has been very blind'

However, one urban expert said the city should have predicted this migration.

University of British Columbia urban design professor Patrick Condon said the high cost of housing has forced Vancouver families to move into smaller living quarters like condos and townhouses in the city's downtown.

"​The government has been very blind, and it seems almost intentionally so as this situation unfolded," Condon said. 

'We're a victim of our own success'

The city isn't directly responsible for building schools — the Vancouver School Board manages its own capital plan, with funding from the province and regular input from the city to determine how enrolment might shift in different parts of town.

But the city agrees it misjudged demographic trends when it planned to densify areas like downtown and False Creek more than a decade ago.

"In a way, we're a victim of our own success," said the city's assistant director of planning, Kent Munroe.

"The fact that we build communities that have lots of amenities and are great places to raise families — we've been successful now and families are coming."

The city says it now realizes that families are also moving into new condo developments, not just singles and young couples. (David Horemans/CBC)

Monroe says he understands that demographics are changing, but notes that building amenities like schools is a years-long process. That means the city is playing catch-up in neighbourhoods that have already had a sharp increase in residents.

New schools on the way

Meanwhile, the Vancouver School Board is planning to build new schools in Coal Harbour, Olympic Village and the West End to accommodate those areas. 

Looking ahead, it's also planning to build new schools in the East Fraser Lands to make room for families moving into the River District, a new neighbourhood in southeast Vancouver that will soon see thousands of new residents.

Munroe says the city now expect families to move into high-density areas, like the Cambie corridor and False Creek. It's also making more room for them by focusing on creating affordable, two or three-bedroom family housing units.

But urban planner Condon has a better solution: spread young families and amenities more evenly throughout the city by increasing density (and thus affordability) in areas zoned for single-family homes, such as the West Side.

"If you don't have any kids in those neighbourhoods, then you don't have any schools — and that's tragic," he said. 

Lottery system for remaining spaces

In the meantime, the school board is looking at temporary solutions.

Assistant superintendent David Nelson said children still on a wait list will be added to a lottery system to determine who gets into the remaining spaces. He said those who don't get in will be placed elsewhere in their neighbourhoods.

For parents like Cox, who is now trying to get her daughter into Grade 1 at her catchment school, it may be too late. She's close to giving up on her utopian dream of sending her daughter to a nearby school.

"We're definitely considering leaving Vancouver, just over the stress and the disappointment that we've experienced through this process," she said. 

About the Author

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.