School Troubles in a Booming Metropolis – Part 1

This is the first post in a series exploring demographic, housing and land use contexts of troubled public schools in the City of Vancouver and its suburbs.

Kids attending public schools in Vancouver, Canada are back in class today after an extended two-week spring break. In previous years, spring break was just one week long, but school districts around BC are experimenting with their instructional calendars in desparate attempts to save money on heating, school buses and wages.

Edith Cavell Elementary School in Vancouver sat empty for two weeks this year during an extended spring break. Creative Commons photo by author.

Recent years have not been easy for public schools in Vancouver. A local newspaper identified threatened school closures as one of the top news stories of 2010. While the Vancouver Board of Education finally placed a moratorium on proceeding with school closures until 2012, the need to consider closing schools at all seems strange in a city whose overall population is growing by over 1% annually.

Demographic shift – “low birth rates and an aging population” – is perhaps the most frequently cited explanation for school closures and other measures to scale back school services. The overall population of Canada, like that of many other “developed” countries, is indeed aging. But local demographic trends are more nuanced. Adults of all ages selectively decide where within a city, region or country to settle, whether they have kids or not.

The Vancouver School Board’s complaints of declining enrolment made me wonder whether families with kids might be leaving the City of Vancouver for its suburbs in increasing numbers. This would leave the central City with a population made up of even greater proportions of childless households and retirees than could be explained by nation-wide demographic shift.

The rest of this post considers changes since 1986 in the proportion of the population made up of school-aged children* in the City of Vancouver (pop 600,000) and in the rest of the Metro Vancouver region. (Metro Vancouver has a population of about 2 million).

As shown in Figure 1, demographic data show two findings which were expected:

  • The proportion of the population made up of school-aged children has generally declined since 1986 in both the central City and in the rest of the region. Demographic shift is indeed occurring.
  • School-aged children have consistently made up a smaller proportion of the population in the central City of Vancouver than in the rest of the region, which is generally more suburban in character.

However, the data also show that the percentage of the population represented by school-aged children has declined at a somewhat faster rate in the City of Vancouver (falling from 14.8% in 1986 to 13.6% in 2006) than in the rest of the region (where it fell from 19.9% to 19.4%). While these data do not reveal migration patterns, they could be interpreted to support the hypothesis that families with children are increasingly leaving the central City of Vancouver for its suburbs.

At least for the City of Vancouver, where the percentage of the population made up of school-aged kids is declining faster than elsewhere in the region, Canada’s aging population provides an incomplete explanation for demographic changes leading to declining enrollment in local schools.

To what degree could the City of Vancouver’s changing demographics and troubled schools be considered urban planning problems? Future posts in this series will explore this question. Please share your ideas in the comments below.

    *A few words about methodology and data. The geographical areas included in population counts for the Metro Vancouver region have shifted slightly over the years, meaning that attempts to compare changing numbers of children based on these data would be inaccurate. Instead, this analysis compares school-aged kids as a percentage of the entire population. Using population profile data for each census year since 1986 for both the City of Vancouver proper and for the Greater Vancouver Regional District, I calculated the school-aged population (kids aged 5 – 19), then divided that population by the total population that year to reveal the proportion of the population that was school-aged.
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One Response to “School Troubles in a Booming Metropolis – Part 1”

  1. School Troubles in a Booming Metropolis: Part 4 – Changing Expectations | Planning Pool said:

    May 02, 11 at 5:40 am

    [...] the demographic, housing and land use contexts of troubled public schools. Here are links to parts one, two and three. North Americans are culturally attached to the single-family house, especially for [...]