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Enrolment at private schools growing after B.C. teachers’ strike

Mila Nakonechny, right, 9, walks with her mom, Denise Phipps, outside Vancouver’s all-girls York House School where she is in Grade 3. Mila is among approximately 80,000 students in B.C. who attend an independent school.

DARRYL DYCK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Enrolment at independent schools across British Columbia has spiked this year, and the 2014 five-week public-school teachers' strike is part of the reason, says a spokesman for a group representing private institutions.

Student enrolment at private-sector schools jumped 6.75 per cent this past year, according to the Federation of Independent School Associations of B.C. (FISA).

The growth is much higher than the average two-per-cent increase the sector typically sees.

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The high demand means that some families who filled out applications for the coming 2015-16 school year have been put on waiting lists or haven't been accepted at all.

Beyond labour disruptions, there are many reasons parents choose independent schools, such as wanting faith-based education or specialized programs for their children, said Peter Froese, executive director of FISA B.C.

But Mr. Froese explained that the biggest gains in private-school enrolment were seen at so-called online distributed learning schools, where public-school students are able to enroll for classes. That translated into an additional 4,000 students enrolling for at least one course this year.

"That's the largest year-over-year increase in distributed learning education in this province since independent schools participated in 2002," Mr. Froese said.

He said it remains to be seen if the new enrolment levels will be maintained.

Students who enrolled for the purpose of filling the missed weeks of school during the public-school strike may not register for online courses again, Mr. Froese said.

But at traditional bricks-and-mortar private schools, enrolment has also increased and interest for the coming year is on the rise.

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"We know that there is a lot of interest in independent-school education and that has been reported to us by schools that are having open houses," Mr. Froese said.

York House School, for example, received its highest number of applicants in the past decade for next September, according to Mabel Lim, the school's director of admissions.

Nearly 500 families submitted an application, an increase of between 10 and 15 per cent from the previous year's application numbers, Ms. Lim said.

In an average year, the school has only about 70 spots available between junior kindergarten and Grade 12 meaning most applicants will not be accepted.

South-Surrey parents Quentin Nakonechny and Denise Phipps experienced the ups and downs of trying to find the right independent schools with spaces available for their children.

"It was a bit nerve-racking … we knew there was a pool of talented kids who were vying for the one spot," Dr. Phipps said.

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Dr. Nakonenchy and Dr. Phipps explained that although they didn't have problems with their children's public schools, they wanted schools that offered more activities and a closer-knit community.

The family got a break when a space opened up at the all-girls York House School in Vancouver this year, allowing their daughter, Mila, to enroll in Grade 3.

She is now among approximately 80,000 students in B.C. who attend an independent school.

Dr. Nakonenchy and Dr. Phipps hoped to have their son, Peter, enrolled at St. George's School in Vancouver for Grade 7, but were unsuccessful.

Although school culture, engagement and social activities were priorities for the family in seeking a private school, they said strikes in the public sector were a factor in making their decision.

"We felt like he lost the year in Grade 4," Ms. Phipps said of the 2012 strike.

"We didn't want him to lose another year in Grade 7 as well, which is a big step before high school."

Education Minister Peter Fassbender said in a statement that although B.C. schools are among the best, "it's no surprise to see an increase in independent-school enrolment."

"It was unfortunate that during the strike parents heard many negative messages about our public-school system," Mr. Fassbender said.

"Now that we have a long-term labour agreement, our focus is on working with the [B.C. Teachers' Federation] to further improve student outcomes and remind parents that we have a world-class public education system," he said.

Public schools have seen a decline in enrolment over the years because there are simply fewer school-age children in the province.

Yet private schools have experienced continual growth, suggesting labour disputes in the public sector is only one reason parents are seeking alternatives.

At Vancouver College, the school has run its classes from junior kindergarten to Grade 12 at capacity for many years.

A waiting list for every grade is the norm and the size of this year's application pool isn't notably different, said John Nixon, the school's president.

Vancouver College is the only all-boys Catholic school in the province.

Parents are likely motivated to apply for that reason, rather than other issues in the education sector, Mr. Nixon said.

Regardless of the motivation for applying to an independent school, ending up on a waiting list or being rejected outright can be a big disappointment. But opening up more spots at private schools to meet the demand isn't simple. The high cost of land, on top of the cost of construction, makes it difficult for independent schools in the Metro Vancouver area to expand or for new schools to break ground, Mr. Froese said.

A few groups have contacted FISA B.C. with interest in establishing new schools, he said, which could alleviate the enrolment pressures in the coming years.

For the existing private schools, however, the continued growth in applications is a welcome phenomenon.

"We're in good shape," Mr. Froese said.

Enrolment numbers

635,057 students were registered across all school sectors in 2013-2014

79,258 full-time equivalent students registered at independent schools in 2014-2014, up from 74,333 that registered in 2013-2014

In Vancouver, enrolment increased by 4.25 per cent

In Northern and Central B.C., it increased by 12 per cent

In the Okanagan and Kootenay regions, enrolment was up by 31 per cent

In the Lower Fraser Valley, enrolment increased by 8 per cent

In Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast, enrolment increased by 5 per cent

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