British Columbia·In Depth

Poor kids hit hard by school strike

School provides a network of social services to the province's most vulnerable youth, and advocates worry those families are being hit hardest by the school strike.

Advocates say lack of classes, programs puts most vulnerable youth at risk

Strathcona Community Centre has seen an increase in demand for its breakfast program since the school strike put hot lunch programs on hold. (Catherine Rolfsen/CBC)

Nine-year old Vincent eats a plate of eggs and toast for breakfast at the Strathcona Community Centre

During the school year, he's signed up for the Vancouver School Board's hot lunch program. During the strike, that program has been put on hold, and his mother Nicole says providing the extra meal is putting a drain on her already tight budget.

"I can't always provide the best for supper, but at least I know with the hot lunch and the breakfast that he's had a good start to the day," she says.

Strathcona's recreation director Ron Suzuki says the breakfast program has seen a jump in demand during the strike, with more than 200 children showing up each day. 

"We seem to get bigger and bigger every day," he says. "We sort of picked up the slack."

The centre has also been packing bagged lunches and snacks to make sure participants don't go hungry as the day goes on.

The Strathcona community centre is serving more hot breakfasts since the strike has put school lunch programs on hold. (Catherine Rolfsen/CBC)

But the Strathcona Community Centre receives funding for just the breakfast program, and Suzuki says if the strike continues, it will start to put a drain on its resources. 

He also worries that some children who do need a warm meal just simply aren't showing up.

"Teachers are not just educators, they're basically social barometers. They're able to notice when a child is hungry, or if the child has not had a breakfast. We lost a big safety net," he says.

Teens could turn to drinking and drugs

Trevor Stokes runs the Streetfront program at Britannia Secondary School, an alternative program for students in grades 8 to 10. Stokes says the program brings the students much needed structure.

"They get into a sense of normalcy. When that's not there, all the ills that can affect youth, just become exacerbated. Sometimes those outlets to escape become the societal ills that we're trying to keep away from these kids."'

A volunteer pours a glass of milk for children using Strathcona Community Centre's hot breakfast program. (Catherine Rolfsen/CBC)

He worries some students are hanging out with other troubled youth and turning to drinking, drugs and violence. Other students, he says, are staying inside their homes, and are becoming less and less engaged with the world around them.

"These kids become very insular, and they need us to bring them back out," says Stokes.

While after-school programs continue to run during the strike, Stokes says the students he works with often won't seek out those services without a push from the school. 

"The problem is the access to these after-school programs, or the conduit is the school itself," he says.

"For the students that I deal with, it's very hard to find those kids. You could have the most amazing [program], Mother Theresa could be running a program out there, and some of these kids just won't take advantage of it, because they're not aware of it."

Young kids left home alone

The province announced it would give parents of children under 12 years old who are normally in school $40 for each day of the strike. However, parents won't receive the money until the dispute is settled.

B.C.'s Representative for Children and Youth Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond says many families can't afford to pay the money for childcare upfront.
B.C. child advocate Mary EllenTurpel-Lafond says many families are living pay cheque to pay cheque and can't afford to wait for the government's $40 a day promise to pay for child care.
"While it might be welcome in some quarters, we have to remember we have families, single parents, that are working paycheque to paycheque," she says.

"You certainly can't call your neighbourhood association and say 'I'll catch you later when the government pays me.'"

KidSafe is a Vancouver-based charity that runs programs during winter, spring and summer holidays for children who are too vulnerable to stay home while school is out of session.

Its school-year programs take place in schools, so have been suspended during job action. Executive director Gerhard Maynard worries some of those children are being left to fend for themselves.

"There's no question that some of them are in the position where they're either home alone or they're caring for a sibling."

Maynard says the age when children can safely stay home alone varies depending on the individual child. He worries about the children he sees in the KidSafe program who have challenges with mental health or behavioural issues.

"We had a child in our program that was self-harming, so we can only hope that those children are being cared for."

Community centres picking up the slack

Community centres have provided some relief to parents during the strike, but still haven't been able to meet the demand for childcare.

Steven Bouchard is coordinating the programs at the Ray-Cam Co-Operative Centre, which is running three strike camps for different age groups. He says all of the programs have wait lists, and the centre receives more than 20 calls a day from parents hoping to get their children in the camps.

Teacher Trevor Stokes (left) leads a Streetfront, an alternative program that provides structure for at-risk youth with an emphasis on physical activity mixed with school curriculum. (Streetfront)

Bouchard says the camps are being run on a "pay-it-forward" model, where parents who can afford the cost pay the subsidized rate of $50 each day. Only two or three parents have been able to pay that amount. 

The centre isn't receiving funding for the programs, and Bouchard worries the day camps may not be able to continue.

"What we're doing is taking resources from other programs and that's affecting the operations of the other programs. Currently we are running deficits in all our day camp programs," he says.

There are also staffing issues, because many of the people who run the summer programs are post-secondary students themselves, and have had to return to school. Bouchard says luckily dedicated staff have been working 13-hour days just to keep programs running.

The centre is hoping the Vancouver Park Board will step in with extra funding, to ensure the programs can continue for as long as the strike does.

"We have a very low socio-economic background, with a lot of single parents, and parents who are earning minimum wage, so they're facing a lot of challenges in this ongoing strike."

Bouchard says many of the children in the strike camps have special needs, and at least a third of the participants are Aboriginal children.

Scott Clark is the executive director of the Aboriginal Life in Vancouver Enhancement Society. He says many of the families he works with don't have the money to access paid services, and would like to the see $40 per day per student be paid directly to the community centres providing childcare programs.

"What we see is the lack of a coordinated effort and supports for neighbourhood houses and community centres to pick up the slack."

More than just an education

Half a million children province-wide access extra services through their schools, and Mary-Ellen Turpel-Lafond says she is deeply concerned about the lack of classes.

"September is a month where we often have a spike in intakes in the child welfare system, because the kids are coming back to school, and suddenly it's coming to light that throughout the last period of time, something's been happening in their life that might be exposing them to violence, or they may have been left alone for long periods of time, which is neglect."

The Ray-Cam Co-Operative Centre says it's running strike camps at a deficit, which is cutting into its budget for other programs. (Ray-Cam Co-Operative Centre)

Teacher Carrie Gelson became well known two years ago after writing an open letter about the needs of her Grade two and three students at Admiral Seymour Elementary School on the downtown eastside. She says while she supports the B.C. Teachers Federation's demands, she can't fully rationalize being out of class herself.

"I don't want to be on the picket line. I want to be in my classroom with my students. I have a lot of concerns about their well being and their welfare."

B.C.'s Ministry of Children and Families says it doesn't have any plans for additional programs during the strike, but will continue to act if any child is thought to be experiencing abuse or neglect.

It issued a statement.

"We recognize that teachers and school staff are a significant portion of those that bring child welfare concerns forward, but the duty to report is one that we all share - with teachers and school staff," it said. 

"Anyone who comes into contact with a child they believe is in need of protection should report their concerns to the ministry."

For Scott Clark, a resolution to the dispute is long overdue. 

"Schools are the heartbeats of our communities and they're a place of stability for our children and our families and the longer this strike goes on, the greater the hardships will be for our children," says Clark.

"Ultimately it's our kids and our families that pay the price of this long-standing struggle."

with files from CBC Radio's The Early Edition and On The Coast