COLUMN: More students, more classes

Influx of refugees will cause school district to look closer for solutions

Five hundred more students will be coming to Surrey schools as an expected 1,000 or more Syrian refugees settle here within the next few months.

Surrey is expected to take at least one-third of the 3,000 or so refugees expected in B.C. The new federal Liberal government is fast-tracking refugee claims to meet its campaign commitment to settle 25,000 Syrian refugees in Canada by the end of the year.

News that Surrey schools will get another 500 students, in addition to the already-burgeoning population at schools in many fast-growing areas of Surrey, has caused the school district to take a close look at how it can cope with the added students.

While it has many programs to help new students from other countries adjust, including its Welcome Centre, where settlement and multicultural workers help place students in the right settings, communications manager Doug Strachan said it does not have all the resources it needs to take on so many students.

In particular, there will be a need for more language and assessment specialists. There may also be additional transportation costs, as schools that do have room may be some distance from where refugee families will actually be living.

Numerous Surrey schools are already heavily overcrowded. In particular, elementary schools in three areas of the city have been hit hard with more students than they expected. The greatest pressure is in Clayton, Morgan Creek and South Newton – all fast-growing areas with plenty of new housing.

Surrey was expecting an additional 250 students in September. Instead, there were 950 at the doors of the district’s schools.

Many of these were at schools that already have a significant number of portable classrooms and limited space to handle more students. Surrey is by far the largest school district in the province, with 70,000 students.

There is much that is positive about the influx of new students. For one thing, it is an incredible learning opportunity for current students. This, and the ability to help people who have been suffering while forced to leave their homes, motivates school district staff.

“What they’ve lived through is just incredible and you see them blossom athletically, academically, and really contribute,” Strachan said of the refugees.

Surrey has had experience with refugee students before, but not on this scale.  In the past – such as when refugees were fleeing Burma’s civil war about seven years ago – the district welcomed as many as 60 to 80 at one time.

Premier Christy Clark has said the B.C. government will do all it can to help accommodate the Syrian refugees. Her government’s commitment to fully participate in this process is laudable.

In the case of Surrey School District in particular, the provincial government can show leadership by making more funds available to help the students settle in quickly. These funds could be used not just to hire teachers and educational staff, but also to ease overcrowding at schools that are already full to the limit.

The province could also, in the medium term, take another look at the school district’s capital plan.

Given that there were 700 more students than expected in September, and another 500 are coming through the refugee process, the school district needs many more classrooms.

The province must be prudent and add space where it will be needed for the long term, so that there aren’t a large number of vacant classrooms in 20 years.

However, the three areas experiencing the most growth right now do not have a large number of existing schools, and more space will be needed in all three areas in the long term.

The school district has already received approval to build a new high school in Clayton, where the existing high school (and neighbouring Lord Tweedsmuir) are both well past their capacity.

Some quick action in making more funds available to build schools and add classrooms would be a tangible way the provincial government can help refugee families, as well as other Surrey families affected by the overcrowding.

Frank Bucholtz writes Fridays for Peace Arch News. frank.bucholtz@gmail.com

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