Going to kindergarten isn't always as easy as it should be

Parents are sometimes shocked to discover they can’t get their child into their neighbourhood school for kindergarten. Here’s why.

Elsie Roy
The Vancouver School Board's Elsie Roy Elementary in Yaletown consistently has far more in-catchment applicants than it has space for. It's been turning away neighbourhood kids since it opened in 2004. Photo: Patti Bacchus

I was one of those parents who got a nasty surprise when I went to my local school to register my first child for kindergarten. Like many, I assumed everyone got into their “catchment” public school. I was wrong.

In our case, we were in the midst of moving. We’d sold our house (yes, a real house - families could still buy them in those days) and were temporarily renting. We’d signed a purchase agreement on a new house but didn’t get to take possession until October 1 and we were trying to register for school in our new neighbourhood in the middle of the summer.

We were offered a spot at the school near our temporary townhouse but we knew we’d only be there for the first three weeks of school. We were told we could be on a waitlist and if a space was available in our new home’s catchment, we’d get a phone call.

We didn’t know what to do when early September rolled around. We needed to decide if we should start our daughter off at the one in our temporary neighbourhood or cross our fingers and hope to get into the one near our new home.

Kindergarten is a big deal

Starting kindergarten is a big deal, for parents and kids, and especially for your first kid. We wanted to get it right and not start with one school, get settled and then have to switch to another.

Now that my kids are young adults and we’ve survived all kinds of bumps — some little and some not so little —  along the way, it doesn’t seem like quite as big a deal as it did at the time. It worked out in the end, more or less.

We ended up deciding to gamble on getting into the school we wanted near our new home, where we still live, all these years later.

My daughter ended up missing her first week of kindergarten while we waited, anxiously, for the phone call. I finally called the school and discovered there was a space for her and someone was supposed to have called and told us that the week before. Argh. She missed all the gradual entry and orientation activities, but at least she didn’t have to start in one school and move to another.

During my eight years as a Vancouver School Board (VSB) trustee, I heard from many parents who were as anxious as I was about getting their kids into their neighbourhood kindergarten.

Some much more so and some for more dire reasons, like having a seriously ill younger child at home and no car. There were other truly tough situations made much tougher by having to attend a school in another catchment area, often involving childcare and transportation logistics.

I had several heart-wrenching phone calls over the years from tearful parents pleading for help. It’s not something a trustee can interfere with but I’d give them what advice I could to try to navigate the system.

Why families get turned away from neighbourhood schools

There are several reasons families get turned away from their neighbourhood schools. The main one is that several VSB schools don’t have enough spaces for all the kids who live in their catchment areas, despite having surplus space in some communities. 

There are 20 schools considered “full” by VSB management, either because there are more in-catchment applicants than spaces, or because they are used to accommodate overflow enrolment from nearby, full, catchment schools. This is well explained in a VSB staff report presented at a public committee meeting on May 26.

It can also happen to families that register after the in-catchment cut-off date in late January. Some just don’t know they need to register that early, and lots, like our family, move during that period and end up in a different catchment by the time school starts.

If there are extra spaces after that date they may be given to students who apply cross-boundary, which can mean that you don’t get into the school that could be right across the street from you but a student from across town does.

In high school, spaces remaining after the in-catchment registration cut off may be given to fee-paying international students. So if your family moves into a new neighbourhood over the summer, like mine did, you can be out of luck.

Some families who have one child attending a school “cross boundary” (a school other than their local, catchment school), assume younger siblings will be able to attend the same school, which isn’t always the case. Priority goes to students in catchment first.

With all that families have to juggle these days — work, high housing costs, childcare, transportation — when kids don’t get into the local school or the same one as an older sibling, it can create family havoc. It’s hectic enough when their kids all go to the same school but gets even more complicated when they don’t.

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