December 8, 2011

Schools in need: Camp, field trips out of the question for Lord Strathcona students

For many children attending Vancouver’s oldest elementary school in the city’s poorest district, field trips are not a likely option. Photograph by: NICK PROCAYLO, PNG

Stand at the entrance of Lord Strathcona elementary in the heart of the Downtown Eastside and look north: There is Grouse Mountain in all its glory — an enormous self-proclaiming advertisement for urban entertainment and middle-class self-indulgence.

However, for many children attending Vancouver’s oldest elementary school in the city’s poorest district, that magnificent sight is all of Grouse Mountain they’re likely to experience.

The skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, the gondola ride and the climb to the top of the wind turbine on the very peak for an eagle’s eye view of all things below exist in another world.

Equally beyond the children’s reach are the Vancouver Aquarium in Stanley Park, Granville Island, UBC’s Museum of Anthropology, the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre — basically anything that charges admission or costs the price of a bus ticket to get there.

All these attractions are routinely available to students in the affluent corners of the city whose parents never think twice about providing field trip money to cover their transportation and admission.

But down here — east of Gore on the edge of Chinatown and just south of East Hastings — it’s pointless asking.

“Many of our parents are just too poor to come up with the $15 to $20 it costs to send their child on a field trip. So we don’t go. Same with camp,” said Margaret Jorgenson, principal of Lord Strathcona.

For Jorgenson the sight of the unattainable Grouse Mountain is a perfect example of the invisible bars that imprison the poverty-stricken — they might be able to see through them but they can’t push through them.

At one time special funding for inner-city schools allowed students to take field trips. But with those subsidies curtailed Jorgenson can’t organize trips for the half of the students who can pay while leaving the rest behind.

For the same reason she can’t send any kids on camping trips. She’s had to cancel September’s trip for Grade 6 and 7 students and next year’s, too.

“Every elementary school kid should have the chance to go to camp. But I’m still running a deficit from September last year so I’ve put the brakes on it,” she said.

And yet to be able to visit the aquarium, or go to camp, is little short of vital for her students.

“Kids struggling with poverty don’t have the experience and knowledge that comes from being fully engaged in their community or beyond.

“The Strathcona community is very small and isolating and poverty traps them here. We need them to get out — get to Grouse or the aquarium so they can explore what’s outside here,” she says.

It would cost about $4,500 to subsidize 300 students so the whole school could go on just one field trip this year.

In many schools the Parents Advisory Committee would pitch in but the PAC in Strathcona struggles to provide extra funds.

“From magazine sales this year we hardly raised anything,” she said.

In contrast, the PAC in the Kitsilano school her son attends can raise $25,000 when the members put their minds to it.

That sort of money acts as a buffer against government cutbacks. Parents in wealthier areas might grumble about costs being off-loaded on them but they have the resources to pick up the slack.

However, it’s impossible to raise such sums in inner-city schools so the full force of the cutbacks lands on their students, which means field trips, the yearly camp for older students, and the option of buying such badly needed equipment as iPads and SMART Boards are out the window.

iPads, as educators have quickly discovered, have revolutionized the way teachers can connect with children who have learning disorders. Strathcona has 100 or so special needs students — the largest population in the city.

“Those iPads open the door to learning for children who have autism, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, Down syndrome or other learning disabilities,” said Jorgenson.

She could use 20 iPads and has scraped together money from a number of sources including a donation from a movie company that was on location at the school, to place an order for 10 iPads at a cost of $4,980.

The school has two SMART Boards, one provided by the PAC, and could use four more.

“We’d like to use the film money for such things as the iPads we need. But then we have parents coming in because they have no food and can’t feed their families. So I find myself having to take this donated money to buy food vouchers not iPads.”

So far this year the school has distributed $2,000 in food vouchers.

“I’m going to need another $2,500 to get through the year,” she said.

Staff at the school are the first to dig into their pockets and half of that will likely come from them, she says.

But she’s noticed a slight decrease in the requests for help with food this year, which provides an answer to those who maintain that any system of providing emergency food is likely to be abused.

“The community centre now has a program where they fill kids’ backpacks with groceries at the weekend to get families through, which has reduced requests to us. But I’ve never experienced a parent consistently dipping into us as a resource,” said Jorgenson.

“On the contrary. I’ve had parents we’ve assisted in previous years coming up saying, ‘We’re okay this year, we don’t need those donations. How can we help someone else?’”


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