January 31, 2019
Ms. Suzanne Hoffman
Superintendent of Schools
Vancouver School Board, School District #39
1580 West Broadway, Vancouver, BC V6J 5K2
Dear Ms. Hoffman,
I am writing to express my concerns about the state of the Mandarin Bilingual Program and the Strings Program at Jamieson Elementary. Last year, we experienced a year of unprecedented change which I believe has set our school back and undermined these outstanding programs. Before I begin, I want to bring to your attention the background against which these developments unfolded.
Administrative Disarray: Three School Principals in Two Years
A year ago, our then principal Carrie Sleep was transferred unexpectedly from Jamieson Elementary to Quilchena. Since then we have had two new incoming principals – Chris Wong in early 2018 and Natasha Miladinovic this month – gained a new Vice Principal in 2017, and several new administrative assistants. Our new principal arrives at a difficult time and she joins a fairly new administrative team with no more than two years of organizational history combined. It is a challenging set of circumstances for everyone. Going forward, we need to stabilize the administrative environment for this school.
Vulnerable Future for District Program
The Mandarin program remains in a precarious state. It continues to be a source of concern for parents – that the program will experience a second year of reduced intake, that it remains vulnerable to in-catchment enrolment, and left unchecked, the program’s immediate and long-term future may be at risk. This past September, the program received only 14 students in Grade 4, down from roughly 40+ in previous years. This was due to increased demand for kindergarten spots and a lack of space. The program dipped to four divisions, reduced from five. In another blow, the program’s admission criteria were changed without advance notice or communication to applicants, and alarmingly no consultation with the Mandarin teaching team.
As you know, the Mandarin program is designed for Grade 4 to 7 students who do not speak Mandarin. The intense Mandarin work involved requires those with strong English literacy (due to the loss of 1,000 hours of English Language Arts). The program has employed an assessment process to identify the best-suited applicants and places all incoming students on an equal footing.
The new admission rules removed the screening process. It introduced admission by lottery, without assessment. This unexpected change creates a more challenging learning and teaching environment. Teachers are stretched thin to attend to students with a wider range of literacy skills and language backgrounds. Recruitment of qualified teachers, already a challenge before these changes, is further complicated by the increasing demands on the teachers for more lesson planning to accommodate the disparity in skill set among the program’s students. Mandarin teachers are leaving the program as a result, when they are most in demand, exacerbating the ongoing teacher shortage. Students then receive less personalized instruction in a setting that competes for attention, already made difficult when learning a language as challenging as Mandarin. This is a disservice to students.
To compound this issue further, parents and teachers’ concerns were simply dismissed. After many letters to VSB, we were told that potential solutions would be explored, parents and stakeholders engaged, and a district program review conducted. Following months of follow up to no avail, none of these commitments came to fruition. It has been extremely disappointing for parents who made significant efforts to reach out to VSB in the past year and received no information about plans for next year’s Mandarin intake. These developments capped off an already challenging and disruptive period which resulted in the loss of two well-regarded and experienced Mandarin teachers amidst administrative transition.
As the application deadline for the Mandarin program reaches a close on January 31st, we are seeking a commitment from VSB that the program will be restored to its full size. Parents want to be kept apprised of developments and be a part of the district program review. We want transparency. As stakeholders in the program, parents can contribute towards a meaningful dialogue. We ask to be included. Most of all, we want to understand VSB’s vision for the Mandarin program and the plans for its future, at Jamieson and in the district.
Lack of VSB support for the Successful Strings Program
Jamieson’s Strings Program is another area of concern. At the heart of the program are the award-winning advanced strings orchestras. As extracurricular groups, the advanced orchestras have performed for dignitaries, at music festivals and competitions. Their collection of 20+ gold certificates, and numerous trophies speak for themselves. In 2016 Jamieson took top spot in CBC’s Canadian Music Class Challenge, rising above 1,000 entries from elementary and secondary schools across Canada. Pause for a moment and consider this: these accomplishments by an extracurricular group in a public school. This should be a point of pride for the VSB. However, the future of the advanced strings program appears uncertain. For the first time in 17 years, auditions were absent, the number of advanced orchestra spots reduced (admission by invitation only), and far fewer rehearsals.
Advanced strings including the Pops orchestra, the Grade 6 Advanced and 7 Advanced orchestras are much loved by students. The vast majority of students participate in one or more of these orchestras. It was conceived by the program’s music director James Colpitts 18 years ago to offer students additional time and performance opportunities outside of school hours. Students seized the opportunity and have risen to the challenge beyond expectation. Their impressive accomplishments follow countless hours of practice and preparation before and after school by students and the teacher.
What happened? The culmination of years of making ends meet with reduced resources and insufficient time. In 2015-2016 Jamieson lost 0.20 FTE funding for advanced strings during budget cuts to district band and strings. We were fortunate, other schools lost their music program entirely. Since 2015, Mr. Colpitts has given approximately 300 volunteer hours/year just to keep the advanced strings afloat – time before school, recess and lunch breaks for auditions and rehearsals, plus hundreds of additional hours for music arrangements, preparation and administration. This year he is reluctantly reducing his volunteer hours to fewer than 50 hours/year to strike a more balanced approach. He remains committed and willing to lead the orchestras with additional support. Jamieson families are respectful of his decision. We are also immensely grateful for his extraordinary contributions and support of the program. The students are ready to pick up their instruments. Missing from the puzzle is the VSB’s commitment to do its part for music education. Jamieson’s advanced strings program should be a model to inspire other schools to excel, not considered an exception that could be eliminated.
Within the current prep model framework, the advanced strings program is under pressure each year and it cannot be sustained. We need to restore the funding lost to budget cuts. We are seeking the VSB to support the advanced orchestras, to protect Mr. Colpitts’s time and space so he can continue his work, and the students can do theirs.
We Need Your Support
The Mandarin and Strings programs exemplify the enviable learning environment at Jamieson. Students are motivated to learn, staff connect and inspire our children, and the environment is framed by a supportive administration and parent community. Beyond music and language, students learn the value of hard work and discipline, important life skills. Their role models are their teachers; individuals who lead by example. The students themselves serve as role models for other children especially the younger students. It is education excellence at its best, in public education.
When we encourage our children to explore their potential and to pursue their dreams, we are compelled to safeguard these very programs that sparked their passions. Our children have done their part to make us and our school proud. It is our turn to rise to the challenge and ensure future students have the same opportunities.
PAC Chair, Dr Annie B Jamieson Elementary
CC. Janet Fraser, Chairperson, Board of Education Trustees
Lois Chan-Pedley, Trustee, Board of Education
Adrian Keough, Director of Instruction, Specialty Program
Natasha Miladinovic, Principal, Dr Annie B Jamieson Elementary