It’s no secret that many schools in the city are bursting at the seams, with an ever-growing number of portables and new schools needed. In our special series, we will examine how growth is affecting students, parents and school staff alike. Today, we look at space struggles – and creative solutions – at Surrey’s most and least crowded elementaries.
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Pulling up to Katzie Elementary School in Clayton Heights, one might guess it was a high school.
The modern two-storey, five-year-old building is massive for a typical elementary school, and houses 15 of the district’s 300-plus portables – the most of any elementary school in the city.
With 41 divisions, 70-plus teachers and more than 900 students, it’s one of the most overcrowded elementary schools in Surrey.
Katzie has seven kindergarten classes alone this year. That, compared to Surrey’s least-crowded Bridgeview Elementary with eight divisions in all.
The “single biggest challenge,” from both parent and student perspective, is the lack of outside space, according to Ashley Bunting, Katzie PAC president.
“And I hear it from my own kids,” she told the Now-Leader. “The portables play into that because the portables have taken up some of the space but ultimately we did have a fairly large grounds to start with. But you can’t have seven kindergarten classes full of kids on a playground.”
There are three playgrounds on the school property, one main one and two smaller but it’s simply not enough, says Bunting. She praised teachers for doing a good job in finding work-arounds to the shortfall of play space on school grounds, taking kids on “walking field trips” to adjacent or nearby parks during non-lunch hours.
“But it does require some extra thought and consideration to take them off school grounds,” she said. “As a mom of three boys, they need that outdoor time.”
Inside the school, space is also an issue, she noted.
“I think the inside space is most impacted by our community of students that have extra needs outside the classroom,” Bunting said. “A lot of schools, because they’re undercapacity, have a room available to them where if students need a quieter space, they can walk to a room where it’s quiet and calm. And we don’t really have a room available for that.”
Other “flex space” is also sparse.
“I think that’s where we struggle inside,” she said. “And the gym, there’s only one large gym. But I think they’ve done a really good job of laying it out and utilizing the space we do have.”
Bunting noted the school has a “large school committee” to try to constantly address the challenges in unique ways, be it the aforementioned struggles or others.
Parking, meantime, has been an ongoing problem.
“The fact that we’re one of the smallest catchments in Surrey yet we have a parking issue, is ironic,” said Bunting.
Up until last November, Bunting described the school’s parking situation as a “disaster.” There would often be three cars stopped side by side in the drop-off area, she said.
In one instance, it resulted in a fire truck being unable to get through, she said. Parents and the school initiated a plan to set up cones to ensure there was only one lane accessible to vehicles – and another area for daycare buses or vans and handicap needs. The staff parking lot was also blocked off.
“I was shocked how well it went and how fast people got on board. The safety of our students was really an issue, when emergency vehicles can’t get in, and you have kids walking across a drop-off zone. It was only a matter of time until someone got hit,” she said.
The changes have gone so well, Bunting said district staff have come out to see how they operate it in an effort to perhaps implement it at other schools.
Bunting also pointed to several good things that come with having such a large student body, including the ability to raise large amounts of money. She said the PAC recently cracked six figures in funding.
The kids benefit from that, she said, noting Grade 1 students have a yoga program this year and there’s a crossfit program run in partnership with a local gym.
Another advantage, she said, stems from having a large number of teachers. It has meant there are “clubs galore” for kids to take part in, and an expertise among the staff who volunteer to run those programs.
“Overall, the biggest thing that’s been my personal goal, and we’ve done a good job at, is building a community where everyone does feel included,” she said.
Some, however, have seen children struggle in crowded Clayton schools.
Natasha Royer, whose daughter attended the nearby Hazelgrove Elementary when it opened in 2009, has moved her now high school-aged child to a private school due to the overcrowding in the area’s schools.
Royer found her daughter’s school Hazelgrove Elementary “didn’t have connectedness or belonging” that more established schools typically have.
“Especially in a young community like Clayton,” she said, noting her daughter was in a portable much of her public school life. “Being in a portable, it just goes against engagement. You’re separate from the main school.”
As her daughter got older, and entered Clayton Heights Secondary, Royer said she began to “slip through the cracks,” both academically and socially.
Royer suggested that in jam-packed schools – such as those in the Clayton area – it can be harder for “overworked” teachers to keep close eyes on each and every student.
Royer said she moved her daughter to a private school and her daughter has “turned a corner.”
“Her academics are so much better, she’s way more engaged. She’s getting at least an 80 per cent, and advanced placement,” she added.
Two more new schools are to be built in the Clayton area. Together, Maddaugh Road and Regent Road elementaries are hoped to relieve overcrowding at the five-year-old Katzie, creating an additional 1,260 student spaces. It’s hoped Maddaugh will open in 2021, but no date has been set for Regent.Space aplenty at the least-crowded elementary
Across town near the base of the Pattullo Bridge, Bridgeview Elementary has quite a different story than the schools in the ever-growing Clayton neighbourhood.
Katzie has 904 students despite having a capacity of 650 (putting it at 139.07 per cent capacity), Bridgeview sits at just 56.36 per cent capacity (with 142 students in a building with a capacity to handle 220 students).
Pulling into the parking lot at Bridgeview, there are far more empty spaces than those that are taken.
“It’s a very close-knit community,” said principal Diana Ellis, sitting at her desk gazing out at the children playing on the two playgrounds during recess recently. “There’s a real sense of pride here.”
She said the advantages to being small are obvious.
“We’ve got lots of room. Lots of space,” she laughs. “Our gym, every single class in our school could have gym every single day. You can have as much time as you need, and there’s tons of room outside.”
Ellis chuckles as she recalls her first gym assembly at Bridgeview, after working at several larger schools in Surrey and beyond.
“I walked in and saw this little square. Someone said, ‘Do you need a microphone?’ I said no, I’m pretty sure I can carry my voice.”
Bridgeview staff have created a “jungle room” inside an old computer lab that’s been transformed into a colourful reading space.
The school also has a zen room, multiple classrooms for specialized support teachers, a room for their breakfast program and dance classes and more.
“The other advantage, of course, is the district has been incredibly supportive of this school and aware of the fact we are a unique community. In other communities the school might be in danger (of catchment changes) but here, there’s nowhere to go. They’ve been very supportive and one of the ways they’ve been super supportive is they’ve allowed us to have small class sizes. We have classes here that are 15 kids, 16 kids.”
Ellis said the benefit of those smaller class sizes is “more personalized instruction from their teachers, and more support from educational assistants.”
But of course, being a small school community isn’t without its downsides.
Forming sports teams can be tough, she said, because not enough children may come out to join a given team – a harsh contrast to Katzie.
“But more importantly, really, is that you have staff members that have to step up to all sorts of different committees,” she said. “You have to have your basketball, volleyball, staff committees, assembly crew so you have to be very committed. That’s definitely a negative for a small school.”
While Katzie is the most crowded school when considering portable count alone, when examining a school capacity versus actual enrolment, the most crowded elementary school is actually Hall’s Prairie.
With a capacity of 120, the school actually has 201 students enrolled (or 167.5 per cent capacity), compared to Katzie’s 139.07. A unique, heritage school in South Surrey, Hall’s Prairie has five indoor classrooms in two buildings, and five portables on its grounds, with another expected to arrive next fall.
Principal Chris Baldry said the modest number of students creates a tight-knit school community.
“Community matters a lot to the people who live here.”
He described Hall’s Prairie’s makeup as “eclectic.”
“The bulk of our students come from Summerfield, south of 8th Avenue and west of 176th Street,” he said.
“That’s where a new Douglas elementary school is being built. Then we have families who own farmland around here. Then there’s an RV park down here.”
The new school’s catchment boundaries, he said, would capture 90 per cent of Hall’s Prairie students. It’s not yet been decided what will happen with Hall’s Prairie when opening day comes for the Douglas school.
“The decision hasn’t been made,” said Baldry.
“But there’s a lot of history with families in the community. Second-, third-generation families are here, which is somewhat unique with a growing municipality. Not many schools have a 100-year history.”
In a city with constant growth, the district’s student projection numbers for developments have been causing concern.
Mary-Em Waddington, a parent in Clayton, said she’s curious how projections are calculated.
“By the time we get new schools built, what we’re finding is that they’re already overcrowded,” said Waddington, who ran for school trustee in the 2018 civic election. “It seems like there is a problem, either the projections are bad or the process is bad, but something is not right.”
Councillor Mandeep Nagra took issue with projections last December, saying numbers for a particular development application were “way off,” asking for “realistic” numbers in the future.
Surrey Schools spokesman Doug Strachan said student projections are based on type of development, neighbourhood and the economy.
Areas like Clayton, Strachan said, “where it’s just been farmland primarily over the last 10 years being converted to housing and a combination of single-family townhomes” would generally have a higher school-aged child ratio.
Amy Reid, Lauren Collins
UP NEXT: We look at why portables have become “a way of life,” despite a political promise to eliminate them.