'Sad and angry': Parents frustrated as kindergarten lottery leaves closest school out of range

Eli Puterman and his husband Dave had to read the letter from the Vancouver School Board two or three times before accepting its contents and turning in for a restless night.

The letter informed them their four-year-old son, Zev, had not received a kindergarten spot in the school in their catchment area, Crosstown Elementary, located a 15-minute walk from their home.

"We've been yearning for this school ... Every time we drive by here, we've been calling it [Zev's] school," Puterman said.

"We spent the night pretty sad and angry that our lives were not what we expected it to be."

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The young family's position is common in Vancouver.

Every year, hundreds of parents in Vancouver face a lottery system for schools in their catchment areas where the number of children exceeds available space. 

Rob Schindel, the associate superintendent of school services at VSB, says the board utilizes a draw to be fair to all families.

He says there were about 12 elementary schools — out of 89 elementary schools in the district —  that had to go to the draw process this year because of high demand from students in their catchment areas.

"Students with sibling priority are placed first, then the remaining spaces are then filled with in-catchment students," Schindel said.

He says if students don't get into the school in their neighbourhood, the board will ensure they still get a spot at a school in the district, ideally as close to their home as possible.   

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For former city planner Brent Toderian, the policy is "geographically ridiculous."

He said his family purposely moved to their neighbourhood 10 years ago, with the hope that any future kids would be able to attend the yet-to-be-built Crosstown Elementary school across the street on Expo Boulevard.

But his son also lost out in the kindergarten lottery this week.

"We're feeling a sense of remarkable grief today, the grief that the 10 year strategy that led us to make all of our choices has failed because of a random lottery," said Toderian. 

"It's the knocking out of the legs of their whole sense of community, the whole definition and strategy for community."

He says he's looking at private schools to stay as close as possible to his home. Lord Strathcona Elementary School on East Pender Street, another VSB school, located a 15-minute walk away, "might be [a] possibility." 

"I frequently told council that they would be amazed at how many trips in our city every day are parents trying to get their kids to school in cars, taking up transit capacity, etc. and not just because their school is far away ... but [because] they've had to go to a different school," he said. 

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Schindel says the district wants to acknowledge the parents' predicaments.

He says the board's spending plans put a priority on new schools in rapidly densifying downtown neighbourhoods that are attracting more families. The board has received approval for a Coal Harbour school, but not yet for Olympic Village, where the nearest school — Simon Fraser Elementary on West 15th Avenue — received 104 kindergarten applications for 40 spots in the 2018 school year.

"[New schools] would help with addressing that concern and that frustration," he said.

Local parent advocates Lisa McAllister and Laura Moore, both of whom live within Simon Fraser's catchment area, said their children were both put on this year's wait-list for the crowded school this week. Neither knows where their kids could end up. 

"We've asked the VSB where they're going to place us. They are unable to tell us at this point," said McAllister, who lives in Olympic Village.

When reached for comment, the Ministry of Education said it spends one in six of the ministry's school capital dollars in Vancouver, though its top priority remains seismic building upgrades, not constructing new schools.The government said it's currently reviewing funding requests from all 60 of the province's school districts. 

"The district is responsible for reviewing enrolment, catchments and programming to determine how to best use available space to meet the needs of students," the ministry's statement said.

McCallister said she's tired of the province "pointing fingers" at the local school board when asked about this issue. 

Moore agrees. According to her, it's time for the government to step up with increased funding and a willingness to work with the VSB and identify creative ways to address overcrowded catchments.

As for Puterman and his husband, they have yet to tell their son he won't be attending the school they said he would.

"We'll work it out. We won't let him think anything's wrong with it ... It's a sad moment for our family."

Listen to Brent Toderian on CBC's The Early Edition: