Thursday, June 17, 2010

Virginia Park

This story caught my eye because, well, it's my old elementary school. The first year it opened, back in 1976, I entered Grade 1. I graduated from there in 1982, thus proving I'm getting up there in age, apparently.

Virgina Park was never meant to last this long. It's been upgraded over the years, but at its heart it's a series of interconnected temporary buildings. I think the original shelf life on the school was about 10 years, at which point it was going to be replaced. You may note the school has now been opened 35 years. They also haven't been exactly been easy years. Virgina Park Elementary has been ridden pretty hard over the last 35 years. Yes, most schools do get a rough ride from the students, but Virgina Park can be a rough neighbourhood.

I know some people get all indignant over that assessment, but I moved there in 1975 and grew up there. Hell, I was living there as recently as 2005. My father delivered mail there most of his life. You can paint her up and get outraged when people insinuate there might be a hard crowd there, but the truth of it is there are rough areas. To be fair, there are also some very nice areas. Virginia Park is kind of weird like that.

Now, Peter's argument is the school board tried to sneak this through. It certainly looks like it and given what little I know about how school boards operate, it wouldn't surprise me all that much. However, the other argument is that Virginia Park was being discriminated against because it is a lower income area and the new location for the school would be located in a higher income area. There's also the matter of wanting more community schools, so kids don't have to travel so far.

So let's tackle some of these. And to be honest, I do have some fondness for Virginia Park. I had some good teachers there and I liked the place. I could walk home in a few minutes, which is clearly one of the major points parents are trying to push home. Plus, I don't yearn for its firey destruction like I do with Booth Memorial.

My first question is simply this...what are the demographics? There were certainly a lot of kids in Virginia Park when I was going there, even if some of there were shipped off to the Catholic school over in East Meadows (ah the senseless idiocy of the denominational school boards). But that's when I was growing up, where there were a lot more kids in Newfoundland and Virginia Park was a new subdivision.

However, there are a lot fewer students in Newfoundland and that number has been dipping all the time. Plus, there is the question of where those kids are living. Simply, if there are fewer children living in the Park now and that has been a steady downward trend, well, I'm not sure you can justify building a new school there.

Yes, community schools are nice, but talk to the parents in Southern Harbour who have to put their five year old kids on a bus to send them to Arnold's Cove in the middle of winter. People in rural Newfoundland have less than no sympathy when they read stories like this. To quote what I'm sure several of my friends out there would say, "suck it up, buttercup."

The fiscal reality is that community schools are not always going to be possible. Yes, it would be nice if all kids could walk back and forth to school. Some parents get to have that luxury. But not all of them do. There's just no way the provincial government can afford it.

If Virginia Park Elementary still has a growing school population and the demographic trends show the flow of students going to the school is going to remain stable or grow over the next decade or so, then yes, they absolutely have a legitimate argument for keeping the school in the area. But I didn't hear Peter make that point, so I wonder if those stats aren't backing him up.

If the demographic trend shows more kids in the Stavanger Drive area over the next decade, with Virginia Park decreasing, well, then that's a bitter pill, and I'm sorry to see my old school have to go. But that strikes me as being the fair thing to do. We all can't get what we want, sorry to say...

Last Five
1. Behind the house (live) - Neko Case
2. Snowblind - Rob Thomas
3. Many shades of black - The Raconteurs*
4. The night before - The Beatles
5. Won't get fooled again - The Who


Chris said...

As you said, it would be nice to keep "neighbourhood" schools (and aren’t all schools in some neighbourhood?), but the demographics of St. John's and surrounding areas has changed dramatically over the past ten years or so and continues to change. The exponential growth of Paradise and Torbay – where it seems that a new subdivision is going up every second day - means younger families are migrating from the city’s core to the 'burbs.

The total number of kindergarten students in Paradise Elementary this past year was over 130 and the number is expected to rise next year - the fifteenth year of such growth. As a result, we are getting not one, but two new elementary schools opening in September. And that may not be enough. The schools are constructed so that additions can be made to add on if, and inevitably when, the need arises. Paradise alone will now have three elementary schools.

The inner core of St. John's has fewer students than it used to and places we once lived are shells of themselves when it comes to the number of school age kids. Parents have been replaced with grandparents. Mt. Pearl is also starting to see a similar change in demographics. Declining school age populations means more space in classrooms and students from Paradise are bussed to Mt. Pearl for junior and senior high school - a mere five-minute bus ride. (So Paradise will not be getting new junior or senior high schools anytime soon. I wish some parents would stop beating that drum.)

While I sympathize with the parents in Virginia Park, it seems to be a school that has passed its expiry date. Throw in environmental concerns (I believe it was build over an old landfill), the fact that the proposed site for a new school on Snow’s Lane is in a growing subdivision and the writing made be on the wall for VPE.

Peter L. Whittle said...

I have to add a couple of points

1. The area has a growing school age population.

2. The new development in Pleasentville means 1200 or so new homes. The Eastpoint landing development is full of young children zoned for MQP.

3.The current catchment are does not reflect the entire neighborhood, which really bothers me. VIRGINIA PARK ARE IS MUCH MORE THAN the handful of housing units along Watson area. Most of the former NLHC units on Newfoundland Drive and Montaque street are privately owned by people who pay taxes and are raising school aged children.

4. The current school board and those in the past, have clung to, and propagated a stigma. They have established a catchment area that has bused hundreds of students out of the area (with 2k of school) who could walk to VPE. The reason has never been explained to me. See the post on my blog that shows catchment areas, population figures and the urban poverty study. Despite the fact the VPE is strategically located, the kids get bused away. Why?

5. I do not want my kids in a contaminated site. We were told by the board last fall that there was some hydrocarbons in the soil. When we were still dealing with a rebuild, we were told do not worry. We can clean that up easily enough. It will cost between $300,000 and 450,000. Of course it does not matter if the school is build on that site or another, that clean-up will have to be done. The real issue, is how many homes along the property are contaminated, and do not know it?

6. The board did not provide us with the final recommendation or discuss it with us as they have for all other relocation and school construction projects. We were also not told about the phase two environmental.

7. The Snows Lane site is an issue from an environmental,, traffic and cost perspective. The board has not yet demonstrated that it will be cheaper and more efficient to prepare that property than remediate the land adjacent to the current site. As well the Department of Environment has embarked a flood study that is still underway but the chosen location is in a flood plain that has been mad worse by the development along clovelly. The water has no where to go. The town of Logy Bay has questioned the move and asked the board to reconsider.

8. I have kids at MQP and VPE. I like the idea of a smaller primary/elementary school. Junior High Schools and Senior High schools tend to be larger.

9. The bottom line is that population growth, or lack of it, is not a reason for closing out a neighborhood school. The population is stable, old neighborhoods like mine are repopulating with lots of school age children. IF the catchment are were expanded to include those bused out of the area, the school would be a maximum capacity without the pleasantville development.

I want the best elementary education possible for my kids. I want them to get that eduction in a balanced environment that reflects the true community around us. Unfortunately, that has not been the case.

The best thing about the current proposal is that we might finally get the balance I have fought ten years to achieve. I am just not as convinced that the neighborhood school has to abandoned.