Greater Heights Learning Academy teaches special needs students from 13 municipalities in the Lower Mainland, arriving from as far away as Abbotsford and West Vancouver.
The spectre of childhood hunger can be found in all corners of this province, including an independent school in Coquitlam where tuition fees range from $16,000 to $18,000 a year.
If might come as a surprise to learn that children at a private school could possibly be arriving at school hungry and with little or no food to last the day, but the fact is they are.
“Many people have the notion that independent schools are for rich people and don’t need help with anything. That’s far from true,” says Kathleen Jeffrey, principal of Greater Heights Learning Academy for special needs students.
“Our parents are middle- to lower-income earners. We don’t have any rich kids here.”
Parents with limited finances have their tuition costs augmented by donations from charities such as the CKNW Orphan’s Fund and Variety B.C., or from First Nations bands.
But even with that help, they still struggle, said Jeffrey.
“We have a number of single-parent mums, a dad on disability, a mum in low-income housing — they don’t have anything. We have about 10 families that don’t have food for their children, and another 10 where food is inconsistent.
“Feeding their children can be a great stress for these parents, and we’d like to take some of that off them.
“We find some children coming in hungry without breakfast and when we open their lunch box we find just a granola bar or a cheese stick to last them the whole day. They can’t be expected to learn like that.”
When this happens, staff will share their lunch or buy them food.
But beyond some granola bars and cartons of juice in the office, the school doesn’t have the resources to feed these children properly and is asking The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-A-School program for $5,000 so they can be served a hot lunch.
The school, with 70 students from kindergarten to Grade 12, is housed in the former Burquitlam Elementary school at the end of Thompson Ave., which was closed 14 years ago when its enrolment shrank to a mere 40 students.
It has children from 13 municipalities in the Lower Mainland arriving from as far away as Abbotsford and West Vancouver. The school bus costs parents $325 a month, and that’s after the school subsidizes it to the tune of $40,000 a year.
Many of the children have autism, and Greater Heights specializes in teaching children with this condition.
Parents send them here because the specialized help their children need is not always available in public schools, she said.
“A lot of public schools can’t accommodate the needs of these kids. We have some very bright, high-functioning children like (climate change activist) Greta Thunberg, who (due to autism) won’t make it emotionally or academically in a public school because it might not be challenging enough for them or they might get bullied and picked on.
“Then at the other end we have the non-verbal, low-academically functioning students, and sometimes the teaching assistants (in public schools) are not trained enough or the teachers are overwhelmed and too busy, so these children don’t get what they need. They just manage their behaviour and don’t really teach them.”
One of the manifestations of autism can be a child fixating on what he or she wants to eat to the point where they will refuse anything different.
“If they don’t get their preferred food, they won’t eat anything, no matter how hungry they are. We had a child recently who wanted a ham sandwich and went into a complete meltdown because we didn’t have one.
“It was brutal for the staff, for the other children, and then there’s the awful effect on the child.
“It took over an hour to calm him down, and how do you teach a child for the rest of the day after an episode like that?
“We want to be able to work with parents on preferred food for these children. For a parent of limited means, it might not be too bad if the preferred food is macaroni and cheese because, as long as it’s cheap, it’s fine. But if it’s chicken nuggets or hamburgers — three times a day for a month — it will bankrupt them.
“We can help by getting the food they want — take the strain off the parents. We can buy TV dinners or buy what they want and have our home economics class cook it for them.
“But somehow we need to feed them.”
By Gerry Bellett (firstname.lastname@example.org)