Saturday, November 15, 2003

Kids at our learning centre

For about three years now, a group of us families who homeschool have been working to develop a learning centre here on Bowen. After lots of hard work by my wife Caitlin and many other, we opened our centre in September. Our oldest daughter attends there along with other 11 kids for up to 2.5 days a week. There are about 30 kids in our program.

We were really fortunate to be supported in this effort by a public school board in New Westminster, which is not our school board. When we went to the West Vancouver school board for support, they indicated that they didn't have the money or capacity to support us. That's understandable as not every school board is prepared to support home learners.

New Westminister stepped up for us and included us in their distance program, for which we were grateful. Last week, the Vancouver Sun wrote about us, I think as an effort to try to uncover some kind of bad blood between school boards, as if New Westminster was "poaching" students from West Van, and keeping them out of the community school here on Bowen.

I'll reprint the whole article here with a couple of notes. First, we aren't a school. We're a learning centre that supports homelearners and their families. Second, we never "complained" that the West Vancouver school board would not support us. We asked them, they said no, and we understood and moved on. We are always open to their support, but we have never run them down for not providing us with funding. We are a community of homelearners. We are used to doing things on our own and creating community and resources where we need them. I don;t think any of our families feel entitled to public funding. We are grateful for it, that's all.

Finally, it's worth pointing out that the vast majority of our kids are not actually in the public school system. If we didn't have the learning centre, the kids would stay home and we would organize groups and trips and activities together just like we did last year and in previous years. I don;t think it's fair to characterize New West as poaching students. And anyway, the Nechako school board in northern British Columbia has been offering an e-learning support program to homeschooled children for years. They aren't poaching either, just providing choice.

Anyway, read on to see what other's think about the amazing little centre, and community of families, we have built together.

The New Westminster school board has taken an unprecedented step to provide choice in public education, moving beyond its boundaries to open a school on Bowen Island after parents complained that West Vancouver school officials were ignoring their needs.

The tiny school, located in a church hall, serves about two dozen home-schooled children, who had previously been outside the public system. The students, from kindergarten to Grade 7, now have a full-time teacher, access to publicly funded resources and a place where they can meet for group learning.

New Westminster says it simply responded to government directives to provide educational choice and draw home-schooled children into the public system for contact with certified teachers. The district says it has developed a home schooling program that many parents like and considers itself a leader in attracting students back into the public school system.

West Vancouver trustees, who thought they had sole jurisdiction for public education on Bowen Island, are miffed.

"It's a little bit alarming," said board chair Clive Bird, who knew parents approached the New Westminster board but didn't realize a school had opened until contacted by The Vancouver Sun this week.

The two boards have not discussed the matter.

"Our reaction was, 'What's going on here?'" he added.

West Vancouver trustee Jane Kellett, a Bowen Island resident, said the parents' proposal was rejected by senior officials because West Vancouver has never had a home-schooling program and wasn't prepared to start one this year.

Furthermore, she said Bowen Island already has an excellent public elementary school --Bowen Island Community School -- and she worries that any new program might draw down its enrolment.

"This doesn't make any sense at all," she said, adding that boards usually make decisions about services based on priorities and funding without having to worry that another board might step in.

"Competition between school boards is ludicrous."

When they first learned that parents were approaching New Westminster, West Vancouver officials appealed to the education ministry, asking if New Westminster had legal authority to set up shop in another district's backyard.

It does.

New Westminster trustee Michael Ewen said his board isn't poaching students because the children involved were never part of the West Vancouver public system. Rather, it is providing a service where none existed, he noted.

"These children weren't receiving professional education services," Ewen said. "This was bringing them into the public school system, albeit in a different way."

Ewen said he doesn't see anything wrong with the Bowen Island satellite and would be willing to establish similar programs in other parts of the province if there were requests, although he doesn't know if his colleagues on the board feel the same way.

"I'm prepared to do whatever we need to do to meet kids' needs -- as long as the program is educationally sound and fiscally viable," he said. "I guess I wonder why other districts wouldn't be open to offering alternate programs."

Some school boards have been more willing than others to offer choice programs and, until now, parents were expected to live with those decisions. Their only options were independent schools or distance education, which could be arranged with an outside school board and delivered via computer.

The ministry said it knows of no other case where a school board has moved into another board's territory -- especially without that board's permission -- to open a school.

Education Minister Christy Clark praised New Westminster for responding to student needs.

"That's exactly what I've been talking about when I say I want school districts to be more entrepreneurial," she said this week.

"If New Westminster thinks they can make this a success and West Vancouver doesn't, why should those students --just by virtue of the fact they happen to live in the West Vancouver school district -- be limited in where they can go to school or who can provide them with an education?"

New Westminster is one of several districts to develop home-schooling options this year as a result of a ministry decision to provide per-pupil funding for home-schooled students equal to that of regular students.

New Westminster associate superintendent Russ Pacey said home-schooling enrolment jumped to 180 this year.

The New Westminster program is popular among home schoolers because it emphasizes meaningful group activities for students rather than a fixation on computers, he added.

New Westminster is interested in "pushing its mandate," Pacey said, noting it is one of several school districts negotiating to set up schools abroad. If it can offer education in China, why not Bowen Island? he asked.

The Bowen Island school won't make money but is expected to break even, Ewen said. New Westminster would likely hand the program over to West Vancouver if that board were interested, and would even provide direction about how to work with home-schoolers, he said.

Parents of students enrolled in the school -- officially called the Bowen Island Supported Home Schoolers' Program --said New Westminster's approach to home schooling fit perfectly with what they had long wanted for their children.

"They were offering what we were looking for," said Tim Moynihan, whose two daughters are enrolled in the program. "It's absolutely perfect."

Deborah Thomson, who also has two children in the program and was part of the group that approached New Westminster, said she is not opposed to regular school, but while her children are young, she wants a less structured environment. "It's a mistake to believe every child can thrive to the same degree in the same environment."

Al Saugstad, the teacher in the Bowen Island satellite school, said West Vancouver didn't really understand the Bowen Island parents' proposal, which had been developed over two years.

It was "shoved to the back of the agenda," he said, but with New Westminster, "it was a match made in heaven."

Saugstad's own children are among the approximately two dozen who attend the centre roughly half time.

He gives them guidance as needed and assesses them as regularly as students in New Westminster schools are assessed. He also works with some distance-education students elsewhere in the Lower Mainland.