December 9, 2011

Schools in need: Fine arts school needs a music teacher… and food, and winter coats

Genevieve Anthony of DAREarts works with children at Queen Alexandra elementary school in Vancouver. Photograph by: Wayne Leidenfrost, Vancouver Sun

When the Vancouver school board bowed to community pressure and spared Queen Alexandra elementary from closure last year, the school was saved in part by being designated a fine-arts school.

But the new label for the inner-city school, located at the busy intersection of Broadway and Clark, didn’t come with any funding for an enriched-arts program.

That meant that trying to get the new arts program up and going, by necessity, is being done in a piecemeal fashion. Creating a band program, for example, has been a struggle. The school recently got a donation of $10,000 worth of instruments, but without a designated music teacher the instruments can’t be fully used. The only solution was to have a teacher who plays the violin learn some other instruments in order to teach the kids.

“The arts are an often-neglected area of the curriculum that can have a dramatic impact on student performance,” said principal Cheryll Matthews, noting research has shown it can help improve students’ attention spans, processing skills and memories.

She said one student who recently divulged that he and his siblings were in a transition home because his father beat their mother, is now flourishing in one of the school’s fledgling arts programs.

Matthews said their best-case scenario would be a donor coming forward from the community to fully implement the arts program. While many schools commonly hold multiple fundraisers throughout the year — from bake sales to chocolate-bar drives — to solve school shortcomings, it’s not an option here. Queen Alexandra is rated high on the list of Vancouver’s 12 inner-city schools, and poverty is commonplace.

Many families are on income assistance, living in social housing, or in transitional housing fleeing abuse. Many are unemployed, new immigrants or working in low-paying jobs. They don’t have the money to contribute to a bake sale; they need food themselves.

Besides improving their arts program, the school is also trying to meet the basic needs of not only the students who attend but their families.

The breakfast club, for example, regularly feeds 40 to 60 of the school’s population of 190, but many of the parents are now dropping in, hoping for a meal.

“It’s really sad to see the families who aren’t able to join them and they’re just as hungry,” said Matthews, adding the school sees about 20 parents each morning who could benefit from the free meal.

Queen Alexandra has been trying to fill its own “store” at the school with clothes and food so families in need can access them throughout the school year. They could do with community support to help families living in poverty and often overcrowded conditions. It’s not unheard of for families made up of parents, three children and a grandparent all to be sharing a one-bedroom apartment, she said.

“We’ve noticed this year the vulnerability rate [of students] has gone up,” said Matthews. “We’re observing more students who are coming from transition homes, more violence, more students coming from homes that don’t have enough food or warm clothing.”

Inner City project teacher Jamine Hickman said that for many students, the school is their only safe haven where they can be with adults who care and be engaged in interesting activities.

She said many students would rather be at school than at home, and some arrive as early as 7 a.m. and don’t leave until 5 p.m. In order to meet their needs, clubs are offered before and after school and attendance is high.

Matthews said typically the students who behave disruptively are the ones whose home lives are the most stressful and they act out to get attention.

“I believe part of the answer is around enrichment. It means giving students a rich, balanced, positive learning environment,” she said.

“That’s what will sustain children over the long haul. We’ve put a lot of focus on the first five years of lives — the critical early years. We need to continue doing that; however, we can still make a difference in the school years. Being raised in poverty is not a sentence for a substandard life.”

She said the school hopes to go from providing a good environment for the students to making it a great one.

To accomplish that, the school would also like to provide physical activities for the students every day, and more clubs and more after-school programming.

Such improvements would require financial assistance and volunteers willing to come into the school to help, she said.

“We are a family here, but we need help from our extended family, the community,” said Matthews.

“One of our key messages is it’s not just Queen Alexandra. We’re one of 12 inner-city schools. We’re all in the same position, and we all need support.”

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