November 16, 2012

Adopt-a-School: Beating back poverty a boon to education

There’s a certain surreal quality about an elementary school principal sitting in her office fretting over where she might get a good deal on beds, of finding some company to give her a break on the price of box springs and mattresses.

It’s fair to wonder what the price of beds could possibly have to do with running a school.

Well, anyone familiar with the world of Margaret Jorgensen and the demands of being principal of Strathcona elementary school in the Downtown Eastside — where sometimes the relative importance of beds and books fluctuates — might not find it so unusual.

“It’s simple,” said Jorgensen, “we’ll find a child who’s always arriving late and who’s falling asleep in class and is obviously sleep deprived and so I’ll have the mom in and it turns out the family doesn’t have enough beds, or they don’t have any.

“They might just have moved into the neighbourhood from a shelter, or whatever, and through no fault of their own they’ve been put in social housing that’s full of bedbugs and now the fumigators are in and their beds and beddings gone.”

Instead of an “oh gee isn’t that awful,” Jorgensen’s on the phone ordering beds.

How can she justify that?

“It’s necessary for the child to learn.”

And that’s all it comes down to, says Jorgensen — removing barriers to learning.

If it takes an iPad, she’ll get one.

Beds? She’s bought more than a dozen in the past two years.

Given this, it’s a wonder some sociologist hasn’t shown up to document how poverty-at-the-gates is being handled by inner city schools where principals and teachers seem to be waging their own private wars on deprivation.

However, these wars are not financed by the system — buying beds would likely cause conniptions if the bill arrived at headquarters — but by private donors such as Telus, which is adopting Strathcona as part of this year’s Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-a-School campaign.

Telus is putting $40,000 into various programs at the school and pledging to send volunteers in to help teachers with literacy and other classroom programs.

Jill Schnarr, Telus vice-president of community affairs, said $20,000 of the money will support the safe school program run by the Strathcona Community Centre which is attached to the school. This program cares for children before and after school and during breaks and holidays but its funding has been shaky, leaving community centre staff scrambling each year to find donors.

“We feel that program must be kept going. It provides a safe place for children during times when parents could be working and children would be left alone at home or have nowhere to go. Here they can be in a social environment where they are with others, where they’ll get nutritious meals. It’s all about creating an environment they can excel in,” said Schnarr.

“And we’re committing to a long-term adoption of this school.”

About $10,000 has been set aside for supplying emergency food and transit tickets to families with the remaining $10,000 being used for buying books and supporting a literacy program.

Ron Suzuki, community recreation director at the Strathcona Community Centre, and Katie Gove, senior manager of community investment for Telus, check in with a few kids at the After School Adventure program at the Strathcona Community Centre. Telus recently donated $20,000 to the after school and holiday program to ensure kids have a safe place to play when their parents are at work. (Photo by Jenelle Schneider/PNG)

Jorgensen said some families “don’t come with a rich background in literacy, others do, so it’s about getting all children involved in reading.”

There were years when there was enough government money to buy each child seven new books but with cutbacks, the ratio’s been reversed — now it’s more like seven kids to one new book.

“That’s why the Telus donation is significant,” she said.

Strathcona relies on companies, individuals and foundations to provide the means to make school bearable for impoverished children.

There’s no denying that social conditions in the Downtown Eastside raise a thicket between these children and what is recognized as a normal education in other quarters of the city.

Last year, Strathcona received more than $100,000 in donations of cash, services and goods — money spent pushing back poverty and trying to give its 550 children a regular school experience which includes such things as field trips, access to technology and maybe bringing in an arts or theatre troupe.

The breakfast program (run by the community centre) feeds 200 children and parents each morning and a backpack program provides backpacks of food some children take home Fridays so the family can eat through the weekend.

Without all this aid, it’s hard to see how the place could operate.

The bricks and mortar would be there, of course, and the teachers would still be inside waiting to teach, but what would unrelieved poverty do to the physical, mental, emotional and moral condition of many of the children and their right to an education?

For Jorgensen, it doesn’t bear contemplating.

“We’d have hungry children in no condition to learn, no after-school and holiday care to keep them safe, no weekend backpacks, no access to 21st-century technology, no field trips, no this, no that …”

“We’d be unpacking all kinds of problems and there would be a lot more ministry involvement (with children) and the demand would just be shifted out of the school into family services and not in a proactive way,” said Jorgensen.

“And all those barricades against learning that are part of living in poverty — they’d be right back up again,” she said.

Last year’s Adopt-a-School campaign brought new donors to Strathcona who added to what a number of longtime donors had been providing.

The list of both is as follows:

 Peter Young, Hearts of Gold Foundation

 Joe Chaput, Les Amis Du Fromage restaurant

 The law firm of Borden Ladner and Gervais

 CIBC Wood Gundy (Bentall office)

 Telus Corporation

 Sidoo Family Foundation

 John and Stephanie Freisen

 Jim Duggan

 Bruce Allen Talent

 Gerry Powers in memory of former Strathcona teacher Vicky Powers

 William Greer of the Bourbon Pub

 Andrew Mahon Foundation

 Radcliffe Foundation

However, not all inner city schools are so fortunate in patronage as Strathcona has been this last year.

“There are schools out there really struggling,” said Jorgensen.

“Something must be done for them, too.”

gbellett@vancouversun.com

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