With Oak Bay High just beyond its official capacity, one area resident is raising the alarm on international, or tuition-paying, students.
Last spring the school board determined the students destined for the Oak Bay High French immersion program and staffed accordingly for two classes.
“Every single student who lives in the Oak Bay catchment area and every single student in the catchment area schools … They all got into Oak Bay,” said Piet Langstraat, superintendent for Greater Victoria School District. “Every single high school student in Victoria who wanted to go to French immersion had a place to go.”
In June, Oak Bay High had roughly 1,285 students. There are 1,350 now. The school at 2121 Cadboro Bay Rd. opened in fall 2015, built to LEED Gold Standard, and has a student capacity of 1,300, which at the time allowed for anticipated enrolment growth.
“Oak Bay, and it’s not just French immersion, started to fill up,” Langstraat said. “A number of students outside of the catchment area wanted to attend.”
A number of out-of-catchment students and those with siblings already attending the school did get a space, Langstraat said.
However, some out-of-catchment students who wanted Oak Bay as a school of choice were not accepted. That is cause for concern says Lisa Rogers, who lives in the Saanich “panhandle” adjacent to Oak Bay, within the École Willows Elementary French immersion catchment area.
“The main concern is that those of us who live nearby Oak Bay High School will lose access to the school. Part of the reason we moved to this area is because we wanted to be walking distance to all three of the schools,” Rogers said.
Her own children are young, elementary and preschool age, but Rogers is planning ahead; choosing schools that are seismically upgraded, within walking distance and offer French immersion programs. Her eldest is in the French program at Willows.
“My kids may never need French immersion at Oak Bay High School. I know that. But I think this Board of Education has to act in a transparent way. They have to care about the kids and the residents and not just about the budget. I think they made a decision this year that greatly tipped the scales towards the budget instead of the children,” Rogers said.
Oak Bay saw an added 200 students move in between June and September.
“Our district had declining enrolment for years; many, many years, so there was never an issue, there was room in any school you wanted to go to,” Langstraat said. “Now there’s this pressure we’ve never had before.”
The Board of Education established two processes to look at the phenomenon. One is a transfer policy committee to look at the question of how kids move around the system. If students want to attend a school that isn’t their catchment, what are the priorities? That would include looking at international students. The board also has a long-term facilities planning committee looking at programming as well as infrastructure and catchment areas.
“I don’t think anybody wants to haul a bunch of portables and attach them to Oak Bay. The only other thing you can do is look at the catchment areas as part of the long-term plan,” Langstraat said. “That’s a big conversation, if the board goes that way there will be hours of public consultation around that.”
“Right now Oak Bay is full. It’s not overflowing but it’s absolutely full. If the population stays steady we’re fine, if the population continues to grow we’re going to have to do something.”
Rogers contends spaces taken by international students should first be offered to area students.
“There are international students at Oak Bay for sure. The other thing we do is we balance our international students among our high schools. Across the district we have just over 1,000 students in our schools,” Langstraat said. The tuition-paying students are not all from overseas, but their parents don’t live in the province and they pay $13,000 tuition.
“Why are they giving priority to international students?” Rogers said.
Of the roughly 1,350 students at Oak Bay High 196 are international students.
“This struck me as fundamentally wrong, that you would be opening up all those spaces for international kids,” Rogers said. “There were not 196 spaces that nobody in the district wanted at Oak Bay High School. It’s supposed to be when nobody wants those spaces.”
When districts B.C.-wide had declining enrolment there was a push from school districts and the ministry to fill those seats. Now a growing enrolment also stretches across the province. That will likely spark a conversation on international students, Langstraat said. “It’s not just about the tuition but it’s also around internationalism and global citizenship. It’s really healthy for our B.C. resident students to be with students from around the world. It’s just a matter of balancing those numbers. That’s another discussion the Board of Education will be having.”