New Westminster parents play waiting game

Nikki Binns is fighting to keep Hume Park elementary school open for her daughters, Georgia, 4, and Leah, 10. The school has been given a reprieve by the district but it must find a way to attract more students to remain open beyond the upcoming school year while other schools in the district struggle to find room for their students.  - MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER
Nikki Binns is fighting to keep Hume Park elementary school open for her daughters, Georgia, 4, and Leah, 10. The school has been given a reprieve by the district but it must find a way to attract more students to remain open beyond the upcoming school year while other schools in the district struggle to find room for their students.

Competing for time in the gym and the computer lab. Waiting in queues eight or nine kids long for playground amenities. Finding an adult who can figure out how to open your high-security Ziploc sandwich bag.

Some of New Westminster’s full-to-capacity—even overcrowded—schools can feel like combat zones for the five to 12-year-olds attending them, parents say.

“My daughter refuses to play in the playground [at Lord Tweedsmuir elementary],” said MaryAnn Mortensen, chair of the district parents’ advisory committee. “She feels intimidated, and she’s a daredevil with lots of energy. Lineups are OK with one or two kids, but eight or nine? It’s causing more stress and more anxiety.”

The growth trend the district has been experiencing these last few years will continue, with about 35 new students enrolled in the district for the 2011-2012 school year. That’s a “minor increase” in a population of 6,500, according to secretary treasurer Brian Sommerfeldt.

District superintendent John Woudzia said this “modest growth” can be attributed to a number of factors.

“Affordable accommodation in New Westminster is attractive to families and the programs we offer, people find attractive,” said Woudzia.

With full-day kindergarten set to begin this September, things are bound to get even tighter.

New Westminster parents are in a hurry for the school district to get going on the capital projects that will bring bigger schools to one of the only school districts in the province whose enrolment is actually growing. Not by much, but small yearly increments add up.


‘Moving in right direction’

The capital projects include a new New Westminster Secondary School, a new elementary school and a new middle school.

These projects have been on the table for years and feel like a distant dream to a lot of parents, according to Mortensen. She has been officially involved with these matters since 2008, but says she knows people who’ve been waiting 20 years for the new high school.

“They’re moving in the right direction, but after 20 years there isn’t an acceptable pace but break-neck pace. But when you’re dealing with three levels of government, you can’t expect break-neck,” Mortensen said. “I believe that it is moving forward and I am skeptically optimistic.”

Board of education chair Michael Ewen acknowledges the process of getting the three schools built has been long and arduous, but the delays have not affected the quality of education.

“The staff are doing an excellent job and it’s not like the classrooms have 40 kids in them, it’s just that the buildings are old.” said Ewen.

He added that negotiations with the city are drawing to an end. Land exchanges have been worked out, and issues about how much of the electrical wires should run underground resolved.  Construction plans will soon be sent to the Ministry of Education, but Ewen wants to make sure all the T’s are crossed and the I’s dotted on the paperwork.

With a municipal election set for November and a provincial one looming, changes are bound to come at both levels of government, and Ewen and the board don’t want any newbies wiggling out of the deal the school district has worked so hard to set up.

“When you’re going through these negotiations, you want to make sure that the wording says exactly what you want it to say. We need to double-check everything,” said Ewen.

All this paperwork and bureaucracy not only slows things down, but also feels like too-much of a top-down process, according to Mortensen.

“Some trustees feel it’s not a parent’s place to be in the decision once the ballots have closed. That’s the thinking of the past,” said Mortensen. “Next to our children, we the taxpayers are the biggest stakeholders. A lot of parents have dialed out because they don’t feel a part of the process.”


'Parents like security'

Mortensen recalls that when the capital projects were first proposed, the Ministry of Education and the School District held meetings to deliver information, but weren’t open to feedback.

After some taxpayers and parents spoke out, the district did hold more interactive workshops in 2009. Good ideas came out of that workshop, said Mortensen, including building a school on the site of the old St. Mary’s Hospital, which was adopted.

Nikki Binns, who has had seven children go through the school district, is also frustrated with its enrolment issues, but has been experiencing them from the other end of the spectrum. Her daughter, a fifth grader at Hume Park Elementary gets plenty of individual attention from her teachers, but that’s because there aren’t enough students at her school.

Last year, the school board wanted to close Hume, but parents protested and the school remained open. The instability, though, has kept enrolment low.

“Parents like security. If you don’t have security, then what’s the point if the school won’t be there in a couple of years?” Binns said, adding the school board could redraw catchment boundaries to draw students away from crowded schools like Herbert Spencer and Tweedsmuir and toward Hume.

Binns also thinks Hume could use an image makeover.

“They should make it more colourful with murals and those painted fish on the fence, so that people go, ‘oh, that’s a school, not a community centre’ “ said Binns.

Redrawing catchment boundaries may not address the issue. According to Woudzia, schools like Herbert Spencer and Tweedsmuir are attractive to parents because of programs like French immersion.

The school district tried to institute these programs at Hume.

“We just went through a fairly extensive examination of whether we could consolidate Hume Park with French immersion or Montessori, but it was not viable. Because of its size, we could not have two programs cohabitating.”

While the board of education works its issues out with the city and the province, parents and students will make do with the nine modular classrooms issued by the Ministry of Education for the coming school year. They’ve been  installed at Herbert Spencer, F.W. Howay, Lord Tweedsmuir Elementary, Lord Kelvin and Queen Elizabeth.

The kindergarden students will probably be in the main building and Grade 3 or 4 students moved to the modulars, according to Woudzia. He reassures parents these structures will come with full amenities and students won’t, for example, have to scamper over to the main building in the rain to use the washrooms.

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