November 29, 2012

Adopt-a-School: Henderson Annex needs help with technology, pre-kindergarten progam

By Gerry Bellett

At first glance, Henderson Annex and its 100 or so elementary students doesn’t appear to fit the profile of a designated inner city school in Vancouver.

The school on East 54th near Fraser Street isn’t in one of the city’s troubled neighbourhoods where children are exposed to the full glare of rampant drug abuse and prostitution nor do they come from homes blighted by poverty.

An inner city designation denotes a school which has profound problems — issues far above those expected to be found in the average school.

“It’s unusual in this neighbourhood to have an inner city designation because children here are well-loved, well-clothed, fed and cared for. Their families are doing their very best and have as keen an interest in their children’s education as parents in other parts of the city,” said vice-principal Julie Weatherall.

So what’s the problem?

Well, in 2007, a school district assessment showed that many kindergarten children entering the school were below average in their readiness to learn and their literacy levels were poor.

The numbers were significant enough to have the school listed as inner city and for the StrongStart program to be brought in. StrongStart is a national program that involves parents and caregivers of children from birth to age 5 coming to a school with their children and being shown how best to play and stimulate them intellectually.

The predominant first language of the children attending Henderson is Punjabi and some are being cared for by grandparents who speak no English.

While StrongStart was a help, the school also introduced a Greenlight to Kindergarten program that targeted four- year-olds in the year before they entered kindergarten.

“StrongStart runs in the mornings and Greenlight to Kindergarten was an extra and ran two or three times a week in the afternoons just for these children,” said Weatherall.

“They worked specifically on formation of letters and numbers and some very simple math and pre-reading strategies. They would be taught how to hold a pencil, names of colours, shapes — the very basic curriculum so that when they entered kindergarten they had an idea of behavioural expectations and some academics.

“For families new to Canada where both parents are working and grandparents who don’t speak English are often left in charge of children, this kind of service was invaluable,” she said. “If you want to level the playing field, this is one of the best ways to do it.”

But when the Vancouver school board reorganized StrongStart this year — taking it over from other agencies — Greenlight to Kindergarten was chopped.

Colleen Dickie, VSB’s head of early learning, says the district would have loved to have retained the program but it didn’t fit the Education Ministry’s model for StrongStart — which the board has to follow — and there was no money in the budget to pay for it as an extra.

So for the lack of $7,200, the six-month program has been terminated.

“I am hoping for some way to get it back,” said Weatherall who has applied to The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-a-School campaign for funding to enable her to hire back instructor Zabeen Hussain, who also teaches StrongStart.

“She’s a saint,” said Weatherall, “and her Greenlight to Kindergarten class made a tremendous difference to those children.”

How much can be seen in this year’s kindergarten class which is split between children who went to Greenlight and those who didn’t.

“The children who were in Zabeen’s program are much more ready for learning than the ones who weren’t,” said Weatherall. “I wish it was available this year.”

Weatherall has other needs, too.

Nithila Theivendrarajah works on one of the old computers at Vancouver’s Henderson Annex school. (Ward Perrin/PNG)

The school’s six computers — located in the main hallway — are so old and slow as to be almost unusable for many modern programs, says special needs teacher Rob Mouro. “A lot of the new websites can’t run on these computers.”

It would cost about $5,500 to replace them, but Weatherall says the school has a hard time raising money with its small enrolment and with many parents having low paying jobs.

“Our students, who are less privileged than many others, deserve the opportunity to have up-to-date computer equipment at school,” said Weatherall.

 

The school has six iPads but could use another 24 — enough to give every child in a computer class use of one.

“They are invaluable for teaching ESL and pre-literate students,” she said. “iPads are especially engaging for children who do not have the opportunity [of using one] at home. They are a real incentive to learning.”

But, referring back to the loss of the pre-kindergarten program, Weatherall says nothing is more crucial to a child’s education than the teacher.

“The bottom line is kids can learn twice as much with a good teacher. Research shows this consistently.”

gbellett@vancouversun.com

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