December 12, 2011

Schools in need: Sir William Macdonald elementary faces special challenges

Joan Storlund, vice-principal at Sir William Macdonald elementary with students Angela Ned (left) and Charlotte La Rochelle. Photograph by: Glenn Baglo, Vancouver Sun

A new iPad is a coveted Christmas gift for many kids. But for the students at Sir William Macdonald elementary, it can be the difference between learning to read, or not.

There are only 80 students at the small school at Victoria and Hastings, but a large percentage have been diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome. FAS kids “are visual learners,” and Macdonald’s vice-principal Joan Storlund says researchers have found “using the iPads seems to be a place where we can have some success.”

The problem, Storlund notes, is “right now at my school, I have overhead projectors.”

She laughs, ruefully.

“So in order for them to succeed for literacy, I need technology. In order for them to succeed in terms of their selfesteem, and their whole mental health issues, I need highly qualified counselling. Because [they have] issues [such as] attachment, loss, chronic trauma, and displacement.

“It’s similar to the kids I worked with in another school who were refugees from Afghanistan. They all live with those issues.”

In this case, the student body isn’t made up of refugees from war-torn countries, it’s largely native Canadians growing up in abject poverty. Fifty of Macdonald’s 80 students are aboriginal, and 28 of the 80 have been “designated with what’s called ‘low incidence’ and fall under the area of medically fragile kids.”

Storlund lets out a long sigh: “The health issues for my community are profound.”

But she has hope. If she can get 10 iPads, six laptops, and some LCD projectors, the kids would immediately benefit.

Helping the kids goes beyond simple tools, however. She would like to get funds to renovate and run an outbuilding as a community centre, a “living room” for poor kids crammed into tiny apartments.

“What I need our building to provide is a centre of learning for the neighbourhood, so that I can host a family games night before welfare Wednesday,” she states.

“And I can feed them some good chili and some buns and stuff. And then I can set the tables up, and we can play family games. And they have another place to come to, so they’re not just in a very small, cramped little space.

“And I need to open the building up on Saturdays and Sundays. They need a community centre; they need to come here and play basketball. I need to be feeding them on Saturdays and Sundays.”

Why? Because Macdonald “has the lowest income bracket for all Vancouver schools,” and families living on welfare often have to scrimp on food.

“When [kids are] home for the summer, what we’ve found is that the welfare cheque lasts not bad for the first month, but the second month – at school, they’re fed breakfast and lunch. When they’re home for the summer, that welfare cheque has to do breakfast, lunch and supper.”

It sounds dire, but Storlund says Macdonald’s kids can be remarkably resilient, given half a chance.

“My kids run – we came third in the four by 100 [relay] in the city last year,” she said.

“They are outside, they play. They play basketball, they run, they’re strong, physically strong, because they’re outside lots. It’s different than other kids in the city.”

There also is a strong sense of community.

“Last night we hosted and served 200 people, families, a full turkey dinner,” she said.

“And it was just beautiful.”

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jmackie@vancouversun.com

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