December 3, 2012

Adopt-a-School: Moberly elementary faces unique challenges

By Gerry Bellett

Unlike some Eastside Vancouver schools, Walter Moberly elementary, with its predominantly South Asian population, neither needs an emergency breakfast program nor hot lunches for its 490 students.

What this school lacks isn’t calories but the means to get its children – mostly from non-English speaking families – to the point where they can enjoy the full benefits of the Canadian education system.

“This has long been a community of immigrants,” said Moberly principal Patti Plottel. “Thirty years ago it was a German community, but with the building of the Sikh Temple at the foot of Ross Street, our families now are mostly from India. About 80 per cent of our kids are South Asian – they see it as their school,” Plottel said.

This makes Moberly – located at 1000 East 59th Ave. on the slope above Southeast Marine Drive – a unique school with unique problems.

“Many of our families come from farming communities in the Punjab with some parents who haven’t had complete schooling so they are not necessarily literate in their first language,” said Plottel, for whom getting children literate in English and functioning at an appropriate grade level is paramount.

On top of this, both parents are usually working long hours, leaving their children under the care of grandparents who speak no English.

“If I was to characterize the community, I would say the parents love their children desperately and want them to succeed. But what some parents don’t have is the time – because they are working such long hours – or the experience in language to support their children to get ready to begin school or do their work once they arrive here,” she said.

Volunteer work experience students Jeanine Sinclair, left and Tegan Wahlgren, center left help Walter Moberly Elementary students Jevan Hayre 12, center right and Jairus Bogo, 12 right with a carbon offset exercise during a day long visit at the Vancouver Aquarium. (Ric Ernst / PNG)

Plottel is hoping, through the school’s multicultural worker, to offer some programs for parents in the Ross Street Temple on how to prepare their children for kindergarten and high school.

It’s not unusual for five-year-olds to show up for their first day of kindergarten with a developmental age of two-and-a-half and “not independent in their ability to eat lunch, go to the bathroom, or to line up. They are struggling with some basic things,” said Plottel.

And as they progress through school, they struggle academically.

“When we look at our test results, the kids score very poorly and I worry about a lack of aspiration because they feel good about themselves if they get Cs on their report cards. It’s, ‘Wow, I passed. My parents are going to be happy.’ And you want to say, ‘You could get Bs or As if you take the extra time and do the extra work.’” The school has problems engaging parents in activities such as the Parent Advisory Council, which schools use as a means of raising money for extras, like field trips or school improvements.

A new primary school playground was financed mostly from provincial gaming grants; an appeal to parents for help in building the playground yielded only two volunteers, leaving the work to be done by a cadet group who meets in the school and a local church who sent over their volunteers.

Then there’s no hiding the realities of what goes on in the streets around Moberly.

“There are some unsavory aspects of the community. I have some Grade 6 and 7 boys and girls who are seeing things around drug and gang activity. We had a shooting across the street from the school last year and we had someone knifed in the park the year before. There’s lots of violence and potential violence in the community so the boys start acting up in their older years and we have to try and support them to make good choices and not to buy into the lifestyle of ‘I can sell drugs and have lots of money and not have to work hard.’

“So at both ends we’ve got challenges,” said Plottel.

The school is one of 19 in Vancouver that has the Strong-Start program for parents and children (from infants to five years old) that helps get children ready for kindergarten.

“We have more families than we can accommodate so we’ve had to put them on shifts. It’s not unusual to have 45 families any given day,” she said.

“Without this, many children would be sitting at home watching TV or playing video games and those would be the only skills they’d come to school with.”

For those children struggling in kindergarten, Plottel would like to offer the Levelled Literacy Intervention Program, which would be a huge help, she says.

But she doesn’t have the $3,000 necessary to purchase the trademarked materials. If she did, she could target up to 12 children a year for the intensive one-on-one help to get them on the road to literacy.

“It’s an extremely effective program. It accelerates their ability and gets them closer to what the rest of the kids can do. We have it in Grade 1 but we need it for kindergarten and Grade 2,” she said.

She would also like to provide the school’s 20 divisions with at least one quality field trip a year. That would cost about $10,000 and there’s no chance the PAC could raise that amount.

“For many of our families a big deal is a trip to Metro-town. In terms of life experience, field trips are important. We get some, but it’s limited by the fact our parents aren’t rolling in money to pay for them and we can’t get parents to drive because they are generally working,” she said.

As a result of The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-a-School campaign, the Vancouver Aquarium took two classes from Moberly for a daylong visit to the facility on Monday . The aquarium donated the cost of the visit.

The aquarium’s manager of curriculum programs, Wade Janzen, said the aquarium will also offer the program free to three schools on Jan. 14, 21 and 28, as part of Adopt-a-School.

“We are giving away half the cost (of admission) and are hoping some sponsors will come forward and pick up the cost of transportation to get schools here,” said Janzen.

(The Vancouver Sun Children’s Fund agreed to pay the cost of taking Moberly students to the aquarium.) For Plottel, a field trip to the aquarium is a big deal.

“It’s normally very expensive for our kids. I’d bet there are fewer than 10 kids in the school who have ever been taken there by their parents,” she said.

Another issue facing the school is the high proportion of designated special needs students it has – some physically handicapped or learning disabled, autistic or with low IQs.

Upstairs is the incomplete sensory room which can help children achieve this balance.

It’s a room where children can go to relax and calm down using items like swings, chairs which enclose children making them feel cocooned, a ball pit where they can sit and just let the physical pressure drain away any tension.

Plottel is hoping the school district will modify the room by painting it in calming colours and fitting blackout drapes, but it needs equipment and there’s no money for that.

How much equipment? She waves a thick binder. “I’ve got a whole catalogue of stuff we need.”

 gbellett@vancouversun.com

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