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Where have all the public-school system students gone?

Math and reading pass rates are better when students remain in the same school from kindergarten through Grade 8

Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail

When Naazia Ebrahim's Grade 1 classmates were learning to print, the seven-year-old wrote in a smooth cursive. Recognizing her potential, Naazia's father, Zainul, spoke with the school's headmaster and had her skipped to Grade 3 – but even then, the proud father says she was practising English, math and "eveything else" at at least a Grade 6 level.

Feeling his daughter wasn't being challenged enough academically, Mr. Ebrahim pulled Naazia out of her Vancouver public school a few months later, opting instead for an intense, but rewarding, home-school curriculum that included theatre, sailing and violin.

It was a path that Naazia, now 25, says she is happy – and lucky – to have gone down.

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There are hundreds of students like Naazia who drop out of the Vancouver public school system each year, for a plethora of reasons, but to date the Vancouver school board has no system of logging such departures. Now, on the heels of the biggest drop in enrolment in recent memory, it is working to create a way to help trustees figure out just where Vancouver's public school students are going – and why.

School-board statistics dating back to 1997 show the total number of students enrolled in public elementary and secondary schools in Vancouver has steadily declined over the years despite a growth in the city's population. In 1997, 57,575 kindergarten to Grade 12 students enrolled, compared to 51,901 in 2010. There is typically a decline of about 1 per cent annually, amounting to roughly 500 less K-12 students enrolled each year. But from 2011 to 2012, the Vancouver school district saw about 800 fewer students enroll – a figure Vancouver School Board chair Patti Bacchus acknowledged as "significant."

"We were on target for kindergarten, so it wasn't a matter of people choosing not to put their kids in the system; they seem to be going somewhere," she said. "We see drops even in grades 4 to 7, of kids that leave school in June and don't come back in September."

The school board has its theories for the decline: Perhaps the high cost of living in Vancouver has driven families out to the suburbs. Maybe people are just having fewer children. It may also be that more people are turning to independent schools; province-wide, private-school enrolment has increased slightly every year dating back to the 1970s, according to the Federation of Independent School Associations in B.C. The significant drop in the last school year, Ms. Bacchus theorized, could be attributed, in part, to frustrations over extended job action.

But for all its theories, the VSB has no clear answers.

That may be about to change. Over the next month or two, VSB staff will work on a plan to start tracking students who leave the school system. This may include gathering information from principals, who often know where outgoing students are headed, and conducting exit interviews with the students themselves, Ms. Bacchus said. The VSB is also hoping to access data from students' personal education numbers, which will tell them if students have shown up in another school district.

"Right now we speculate a lot ... and we hear stories, but we don't know," Ms. Bacchus said. "It's something we really should know. ... It does have an impact on us financially, and I think we have an ethical responsibility to ensure students are at least being appropriately supported in an educational program when they leave the school."

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Meanwhile, the school board is projecting enrolment to level out and increase within the next few years, due in large part to high-density residential developments in areas including False Creek North, International Village and the University Endowment Lands. Planned developments in areas such as Oakridge, Mount Pleasant and along the Broadway and Cambie corridors are also expected to draw new families.

Gordon Price, an urban planner and director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University, said such developments have the potential to attract families, as the Concord-Pacific did for False Creek North, but emphasized it must be explicitly mandated. Day care, for instance, is crucial – and must be in the developments when they're built, he said.

"You do have to plan for it," Mr. Price said. "It's not just a question of putting up density."

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