Every school day Selena Tsang makes certain her daughters are out the door, fried rice lunches and backpacks in hand, before 7:30 a.m.
Issaca, 14, and Ashley, 16, have a long commute to Lord Byng Secondary, which sits on the opposite side of Vancouver. The girls, who live in the far east end, walk 10 minutes to the bus stop, where they catch the No. 33 bus and ride it 40 minutes westward, across Main.
They pass five other high schools along the way, four of which contain empty desks.
But Lord Byng has a coveted arts program, and like other schools on the west side of the city, a strong reputation with parents. It boasts a 91-per-cent graduation rate, 69 per cent with honours, and the school is bursting at the seams – 11 per cent over capacity.
School choice is protected by law in B.C., so, provided there's space, parents like Ms. Tsang are free to send their children to any school within the Vancouver School Board. And driven by concerns about increasingly competitive university admissions and an ever-changing job market, anxious parents and students are crossing boundaries like never before. According to statistics recently compiled by the VSB, including French immersion, nearly half of all students currently attend school outside their local catchment area, and the vast majority are heading west. This creates a lopsided school system and headaches for administrators, who are struggling to balance out enrolment in the face of shifting demographics, aging school infrastructure and growing parental appetite for choice.
It's a trend playing out across the country, threatening the survival of the neighbourhood school. Even in jurisdictions where catchments are more firm, parents are finding ways to jump the boundaries.
Parents aren't entirely to blame: The problem has been partly caused by the school boards themselves.
Faced with declining enrolment – the VSB is fairly typical in having seen its student population fall by about 10 per cent over the past decade – school boards are competing for students. Empty desks mean less funding, and the drop in student numbers has introduced a whiff of capitalism to public education.
One of the most effect ways a school district can win a bigger share of the student market is with porous school boundaries and a platter of specialized programs, hundreds of which have popped up across the country over the past decade.
Families are drawn to their promise of customized education, partly because they no longer believe that good grades from a regular-track program are enough to ensure success for their children.
"Parents are looking for the added value of the education," said Lynn Bosetti, an expert on school choice and dean at the University of British Columbia's Okanagan campus. "Getting their kid coded as gifted helps, or sending them to a specialized program that adds value that might give their kids some kind of advantage in life."
The schools they leave behind are then faced with the threat of closure. Five Vancouver schools – all in the east end – were considered for closure in the fall of 2010. Parents hated the idea so much that the VSB almost immediately put a moratorium on school closures. That safety net for the emptiest schools expired last month, and it's difficult for the board to justify keeping empty schools open when it can't afford the $1.1-billion it needs to spend on seismic upgrades alone.
So staff are consulting parents for ways to even out enrolment and keep schools open.
"There are implications when parents get to choose. … [a]school may eventually be considered for closure," said Jordan Tinney, deputy superintendent of the VSB. "Is that a price the public is willing to pay for choice?"
The challenge is finding the right program to introduce at an east-end school such as John Oliver Secondary, which sits at 68-per-cent capacity, that could entice students away from a west-end school such as University Hill, which is overflowing into portables at 203-per-cent capacity.
For the last year, it's been Mr. Tinney's job to explore that question. He's been mining the board's enrolment data, trying to understand what draws so many families to west-end schools and what can be done to bring them back to the east.
He and his staff have also built a website – a sort of interactive menu of school choice – that was launched earlier this year. It's packed full with data and program information to help parents make well-informed school choices for their children.
They aim to help more parents know about the gems hidden on the wrong side of Main Street – Schools such as Gladstone Secondary, which boasts one of the best competitive robotics teams in the world, but sits at 75 per cent of its student capacity.
Boards with loose boundaries are more common in the west, where families are given the most freedom to vote with their feet. In Alberta, where parent choice reigns supreme, Edmonton Public Schools offers more choice programs than probably any other school board in North America.
Choice is more limited in Ontario where school boards are given the discretion to review the reasons for a parent's request to attend a school outside their local catchment. But Ontario schools still deal with parents desperate to cross boundaries.
"I've known of them faking addresses or using grandma's address," said Irene Atkinson, a trustee who represents some highly desirable schools within the Toronto District School Board.
For more law-abiding parents, specialized programs are the loopholes in Ontario's catchment rules, and the province has seen an explosion of new boutique schools in the past decade. Research has shown, however, that these optional programs disadvantage low-income students, who are less likely to enroll.
"Parents who take advantage of these programs tend to be more educated, more aware of the range of possibilities for their kids," Dr. Bosetti said.
That's why the York Region District School Board, one of the top-ranked districts in the country, is moving to protect neighbourhood schools. The board, which serves the suburbs north of Toronto, voted this month to eliminate specialized programs. (Following an outcry from parents, the board decided at the last minute to make an exception for its popular Baythorn Arts program, which teaches the curriculum through dance, drama, visual arts and music.)
"Rather than having people shop around for the school that they perceive or believe is the best, they should have access to high-quality education in their local community school," said Ken Thurston, the board's director of education.
Parents at the YRDSB already shop around less than they do in Vancouver: Including French immersion students, less than 19 per cent of York's elementary students travel outside their local catchment to go to school.
In Vancouver, including French immersion, more than 52 per cent of elementary students attend school out of catchment.
A policy like the YRDSB's would meet enormous resistance from families in Vancouver, where specialized elementary programs, including Mandarin-bilingual, Montessori, and gifted age-clustered classes are in high demand.
"The VSB has an entrenched tradition of choice," Mr. Tinney said.
So the board is taking the opposite tack to the YRDSB and looking at expanding choice programming in order to even out enrolment.
"It's such a great idea," said Carrie Bercic, a graphic designer who lives in Vancouver's east end but sends her daughter to Eric Hamber Secondary in the west.
Her son recently graduated from Hamber, and her daughter, Sarah, is now in Grade 10 there in the regular-track program. She's very happy with their choice, but in hindsight, Ms. Bercic says, there are some east-end schools they could have considered more closely.
"There's such a strong perception that you have to send your child to a west-side school," she said. "It's going to take a lot to change that perception."