From bombs to books; Indomitable spirit of ESL students inspired principal to write book

From bombs to books; Indomitable spirit of ESL students inspired principal to write book

From the outside, Edmonds community school looks like an ordinary neighbourhood school. But inside, it is a microcosm.

Four out of five students were born outside Canada, more than half are learning English as a second language (ESL) and a third are refugees from countries such as Afghanistan, Sudan, Congo, Iraq and Eritrea. Their harrowing tales about fleeing war and repression, their courage and their indomitable spirit inspired principal David Starr to pen From Bombs to Books, which hit bookstores last month.

The school’s community is among the poorest in Burnaby, but it’s not disadvantaged, Starr said in a recent interview on the school playground, as children of all sizes and colours gathered around vying for his attention.

He responded to them all – a greeting here, a question there, a gentle touch on the shoulder, and always a friendly smile.

“We are a highly functional school – our kids do very well academically, athletically and in the fine arts,” said Starr, who is in his fourth year at Edmonds after two years as principal of nearby Byrne Creek secondary. “And we have terrific relationships with our families.

“We could serve as a model for inner-city schools.”

The success of the school, with 320 students from kindergarten to Grade 7, is due to dedicated staff, small classes, early intervention, a strong ESL program and high expectations for all students, Starr said, adding that staff never expect less of a student because of his or her background.

“If anything, we hold these kids to a higher standard because we know they’re capable. They punch well above their weight.”

But education is only part of the school’s mission. The other focus is community-building in a multicultural neighbourhood beset by poverty, where four, five or six family members crowd into rented two-bedroom apartments and struggle to pay the rent.

Edmonds opens its doors early in the morning and closes them late in the evening, welcoming not only students and their families but also preschoolers attending the StrongStart Centre, adults who want to upgrade their skills and newcomers wrestling with culture shock.

Also, within are cooking classes, health clinics, parenting support, a clothes bank and rooms stocked with donated school supplies and sporting equipment. There is a subsidized hot-breakfast program for students and a food-distribution centre for their families, when cupboards are bare.

“We get a couple of trucks delivering bread and food and other supplies and we’ll have upwards of 60 or 70 parents lined up here. It’s like something out of the 1930s,” Starr said.

“We’re probably feeding, out of the school, 200 people a week – students and their families.”

Starr’s developed excellent connections with individuals, groups and companies willing to help his students – including the Canucks (who recently helped create a new school playground), Costco, Telus, the Rotary and the Lions Clubs – but says it’s an ignominy for governments that a school principal and his staff have to spend so much of their time begging for help and applying for grants.

Edmonds has asked The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-a-School project for money to support its breakfast program. He also made an appeal on behalf of neighbouring schools: Byrne Creek, Stride community and Morley elementary.

There’s lots to learn while working at schools like Edmonds, he said, but they are not easy places for employees.

“In some ways, I came to Edmonds with almost as much to learn as my students,” he says in From Bombs to Books.

“The level of commitment demanded of the staff is high; here emotional burnout is an occupational hazard. But for those who come, stay and learn to love the students and the neighbourhood, the rewards are extraordinary.”

By Janet Steffenhagen (

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