When Thomas Ledwell and his wife arrived Sunday morning to spend the day and night camped out in front of Montreal’s Royal Vale elementary and high school, they learned roughly 30 parents had been there since Friday night.
Someone had brought a portable backyard fire pit and kept it going with wood bought at a nearby gas station, he said, while others pitched tents. There were 40 kindergarten spots available at this public school and Ledwell, 39, was going to make sure his daughter got one of them.
“What’s one day when it comes to the future of your kid’s education?” he asked in an interview Monday, a few hours after he enrolled 4-year-old Sophie in next fall’s kindergarten program. “There are advantages to this school — one of them is that it’s not overcrowded.”
English Montreal School Board spokesman Michael Cohen said Monday that camp-outs have been common for decades outside Royal Vale, but the board will take a “fresh look” at the practice now that it is spreading. Parents slept overnight outside at least four of the board’s elementary schools Sunday, he said.
Some parents, however, are questioning why Montreal’s English-language public school system offers some students smaller classrooms and exclusive curriculums while other parents, who don’t have the means to camp out overnight, are left out.
Adrienne Winrow and her husband arrived at Edinburgh Elementary School at 7 p.m. Friday, and waited three freezing days and nights to register their son Monday morning. They alternated, with one staying outside by the school and another in the family car, with its engine running, throughout the weekend.
Winrow camped out because she lives nearby and wants her son to be able to walk to school. Edinburgh is over capacity, Winrow said. She recognizes, however, that not all parents can do what she and her husband did.
“(Some parents) don’t have the resources to camp out while their children are being watched,” she said in an interview Monday, noting that parents either brought camping equipment or burned fuel to keep their cars warm over the weekend.
“There are parents who like this system ... but in fact, it’s only the people with the means who are doing it. The ones who can plan ahead and miss a day of work on Monday out of sheer exhaustion.”
Access to a handful of Montreal’s English-language schools is exclusive. Royal Vale and two others, Royal West Academy and FACE elementary and high school, are known as special status schools that have the privilege of selecting pupils.
All students who make it into Royal Vale elementary school — which has a specialized math and science curriculum and smaller class sizes — gain automatic entrance to the high school. But students who did not attend the elementary section must write an entrance exam, as do prospective students at Royal West.
Unlike Montreal’s main French-language school board, the EMSB doesn’t have geographical restrictions. Anglophone parents can send their kids to any EMSB school regardless of where they live, creating fierce competition for some public institutions.
Cohen said special status schools such as Royal Vale and Royal West allow the public system to compete with private schools. “The cost of (private schools) is becoming difficult for some parents, and they are realizing there are good schools in the public system and they want to get their kids in there.”
He said the board is not making any promises that the enrolment system will change because the process is “parent-driven.” The idea of stopping the camp-outs outside Royal Vale has been brought up repeatedly, he said, and rejected every time by the school’s governing board.
“Now that we’ve got new schools in the mix, naturally, we will review it — at some point,” Cohen said. “And we’ll seek feedback from parents who have a concern, and if there are recommendations that come from the school we will listen.”