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Surrey schools struggle to place Syrian migrants


By Eric MacKenzie

Syrian refugee students raise their hands as they attend class in a UNICEF school at the Al Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan, March 11, 2015

Syrian refugee students raise their hands as they attend class in a UNICEF school at the Al Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan, March 11, 2015 Photo by Muhammad Hamed/Reuter

With some Surrey schools already facing overcrowding, the district is looking for ways to best accommodate the coming arrival of hundreds of Syrian refugee students.

And with little control over where government-assisted and privately sponsored refugee families may settle, that could mean transporting students to out-of-catchment schools once they’re ready to enter the classroom.

“We’ll be looking at all ways that we can to make it work,” said Doug Strachan, communication services manager for the Surrey School District.

“But that’s certainly one of the options if we have to.”

Fewer than 10 refugee students have begun attending schools in the Surrey district, but more than 300 are expected to arrive before the end of the school year. With some institutions already at capacity, making space for the incoming students will be a challenge, but not impossible, said Strachan.

“The over-capacity schools that we have right now are in three primary areas in the district, so there are schools with some vacancies outside those main three neighbourhoods,” he said. “We’re hopeful that we can work with the community partners and have a bias to the location of families if possible so that it’s straightforward for them to attend the schools where we have space.

“Obviously, there are a lot of variables there, including where they can get accommodation,” Strachan continued. “But we’ll work it out.”

The Surrey district is also one of several in Metro Vancouver impacted by the incoming refugees who have been working with the ministries of education and immigration to ensure funding will be in place for the new students.

There is a student head count upcoming in mid-February that will be submitted to the province to establish funding needs for the remainder of the year, but most incoming students will not arrive in time to be included. Although the province has committed to funding education for all refugee students – previously stating that allotments for students arriving after February would start going to school districts in April – but some questions remain about how that process will work.

“We’re confident that the (Ministry of Education) and government will be funding those refugee students, but it just means that there will have to be a different process,” said Strachan, noting that the total cost of accommodating 300-plus students would exceed $200,000.

“It’s a question mark that we have that may create some delays.”

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