COVER

Sowing seeds of renewal

Ken MacQueen May 14 2001
COVER

Sowing seeds of renewal

Ken MacQueen May 14 2001

Sowing seeds of renewal

COVER

With tulips blooming in the playground and lettuce ready for harvest, it is hard to think of Grandview/Uuqinak’uuh elementary as a school under siege. But there is no denying it. Of the 183 students in this east-end Vancouver school, 52 per cent are First Nations (Uuqinak’uuh means “Grandview” in the Nuu-chah-nulth language), 30 per cent are recent immigrants or refugees. For years, the children at this school have had enemies: illiteracy and poverty, family disfunction and the tyranny of low expectations, plus local

dealers, pimps and gangs, hungry for recruits. In early 1996, another villain emerged: a former U.S. marine threatened to blow up the school and to shoot the principal, a youth worker and the mother of a student, his ex-girlfriend. He taunted them for months, until he was caught that May and jailed. The death threats exacted a toll: one-quarter of students and 60 per cent of staff left.

What has happened since is a bit of a miracle, like a spring garden. In the fall of 1996, Jock McLauchlan, a hardy New Zealand transplant, took over as viceprincipal and then, shortly after, as principal. He found a school still in trauma,

and there were other problems. The computer capability consisted of a clutch of outmoded Commodore 64s. The budget for improvements was minimal. The language proficiency scores were heartbreaking: 90 per cent of primary students in kindergarten to Grade 2 were functioning below their expected grade level. “God,” says McLauchlan, “it was a hell of a year.”

It was crucial to define the school’s challenges, and to engage students, parents and staff in setting a new direction. The process was fostered by a provincially mandated accreditation program— a periodic report card of a school’s per-

formance. That helped establish three main goals: improving literacy and numeracy, upgrading computer technology and rebuilding the shattered community. The first two required money, the third, trust. The shift was simple but profound. Quit working for the community, start working with it. From hot breakfasts to school beautification, McLauchlan was determined that the school become a community resource. He and his staff looked beyond the cash-strapped neighbourhood for corporate help: computers from IBM and local law firms, a literacy grant from Starbucks, garden supplies from Home Depot. An anonymous

benefactor from wealthy West Vancouver helped pay for an Open Court language program, introduced in 1997. The highly structured phonics-based system has proved effective in inner-city schools with students lacking basic language skills. Within the first year, half the children reached their grade level. This year, more than 70 per cent should meet or exceed the same.

Then there is the garden. The inspiration of volunteer Illène Pevec, it is a place of flowers, new trees, native plants and something more—24 community garden plots. The gardens draw people after hours, creating a safe and welcoming

“backyard” for a neighbourhood sadly lacking parks. Grade 7 student Simún Ismail, who has attended Grandview for two years, talks of returning in 50 years to find a flourishing garden. She is as confident of this as she is of her own future. Ismail, of Somalian descent, intends to be an Islamic scholar and a child psychologist. She shares her principal’s stubborn streak. “I’ve heard many people say most of these kids won’t get past Grade 8,” she says with a flash of anger. “I hate it. You’re not going to tell me I’m not going past Grade 8. Come on, that’s just so mean.”

Ken MacQueen