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A more compelling East Side pride

Appeared in the Province
Release Date: May 3, 2012

Walk through the halls at East Vancouver’s Britannia, John Oliver, Charles Tupper, and Windermere secondary schools, and look into the faces of the 15-year-olds. One third of them won’t be tossing a mortar board with their PEEPS and BFFs at the end of senior year. At these schools, “delayed advancement rates” all exceed 30 per cent. The students at East Van’s Gladstone and Killarney aren’t far behind, with delays of 27 and 29 per cent, respectively.

The "delayed advancement rate" is a statistical calculation, included in the Fraser Institute’s annual Report Card on Secondary Schools in British Columbia and Yukon. It measures what percentage of students entering Grade 10 can expect to graduate with their class at the end of Grade 12. In other words, it calculates the drop-out rate and grade-by-grade failures, together.

Clearly, East Vancouver has a problem. At six of nine secondary schools in the region, between one in four and one in three students is held back or disappears in their senior years. This concentration of schools where students flounder as they approach their Dogwood is a uniquely East-of-Main phenomenon. For school administrators, there should be no sense of "East Side Pride" in this.

What’s ahead for these teens? Some of them will finish school later and go on to post-secondary. Others will be trapped life-long, in low-wage and low-skill work.

Of course, many of these teens come from families that earn a lower income. At Britannia, for example, the parent’s average income is $33,400; at John Oliver, it’s $46,500; at Tupper, it’s $45,100; at Windermere, it’s $44,500; at Gladstone, it’s $39,800; and at Killarney, it’s $48,600. All of these are far below B.C.’s average parental income of $68,300.

Consequently, some critics of the report card ask the public to disregard the results. Poor kids, the argument goes, clearly can’t keep up, so stop talking about their failure. Last year, BCTF president Susan Lambert told The Tyee that the report card is "just a way of beating up on the disadvantaged."

In Better Schools for BC: A Plan for Quality Public Education, the BCTF states that "a child’s performance in school is strongly related to socio-economic status and that a good education is often the only means of breaking the cycle of poverty for poor children." Yet, instead of proposing a revision of pedagogy and structure, the BCTF blames government for failing to eliminate poverty, and for failing to hire a pantheon of specialists for each school: teacher-librarians, counselors, ESL teachers, learning assistants, plus others.

The reality is, no matter who forms government, eliminating poverty and low income levels is a long-term goal that won’t happen overnight. Asking these teens to wait isn’t fair. And, it’s self-defeating to push the problem outside of the schools.

For these teens, their future inability to support a family, build savings, and retire will be largely a legacy of an education system that failed them. With a decline in the number of jobs available in B.C.’s forestry and fishing sectors – where past generations of non-academic kids could earn a good living, preparing students for "knowledge jobs" is now an essential, basic responsibility of public education.

According to Statistics Canada, 35 per cent of B.C.’s 25- to 34-year-olds hold no postsecondary certification at all. No one wins, if that’s replicated for another generation.

What we’re most interested in, is to spark discourse about the class divide in B.C.’s public education. Are B.C. educators, parents, employers, and politicians satisfied that so many teens from lower-income schools are dropping out and failing? Who, locally, can demonstrate a successful strategy for change? And, most importantly, for those students who have left school before graduation, what would have made the difference?

Even within East Van, one school does surprisingly well: Vancouver Technical. With a parental income of just $39,700, it’s one of the poorest in the province. Yet, the students’ provincial exam marks exceed the provincial average (69.3 percent, up six points over five years ago), the delayed advancement rate is relatively low for the area (23.1 percent), and the provincial exam failure rate is also low (nine per cent, compared to 19 per cent five years ago). What is Van Tech doing right? And are teachers and administrators at other schools willing to learn from Van Tech?

When we release our BC secondary school report card next year, we hope to share a good-news story – that other East Side schools have earned their sense of pride.