Burnaby private schools excluded from city's bursary program

Local private school officials are disappointed the City of Burnaby has left their grads out of its new bursary program.

Approved unanimously at a meeting Monday night, the program will see the city give out a $1,000 bursary every year to one promising grad from each of Burnaby’s eight public high schools, with preference given to students with financial need who can demonstrate outstanding community involvement and volunteerism.

‘Unique relationship’

The idea was put forward in October by Coun. James Wang, who served as a school board trustee for six years before being elected to council in 2014.

James Wang
James Wang

He told the NOW that city council and the school board have a “very special, unique relationship” and have worked together on numerous programs, like community schools and child care at schools.

(The left-of-centre Burnaby Citizens Association, of which Wang is a member, has held a majority on both city council and the school board for decades.)

When Wang attended graduation ceremonies, however, he said he noticed the city wasn’t doing anything to support local grads with their post-secondary education, so he proposed staff look into a bursary program for local public school students.

He told the NOW extending the program to include independent school students or homeschoolers was never discussed.

“We just focused on public schools because we just think that is our major partnership,” he said.

As for private school grads, he said, “They may have specific support from their school, family or some other things.”

Financial need

According to local private school officials, however, there’s no question some promising independent school grads have financial needs equal to their public school counterparts.

“For most of them, there’s great financial need. That’s the demographic we work with for the most part,” said Ilona Davidson, the principal and program manager at Whytecliff Agile Learning Centre, an alternative independent school for students with diverse learning, personal or life challenges.

The school charges tuition on a sliding scale and fills some of the gaps with donations from organizations like the CKNW children’s fund.

“We would never turn a kid away for lack of ability to pay the fees,” she said.

Davidson said she found it “sad” the vulnerable youth at her school were being excluded from the city’s bursary program.

“I think we would be grateful for that and our families would be grateful for that, and I suspect it’s not done out of any malice,” she said. “Perhaps it’s just a misunderstanding of the services that other kinds of independent schools in the neighbourhood are offering and how valuable that money would be to people of genuine talent and genuine need.”

St. Thomas More Collegiate, a private Catholic school in Burnaby, also has grads with financial need, according to president Dianne Doyle.

The religious community that founded the school, the Congregation of Christian Brothers, was formed for the purpose of making education available to children whose families couldn't afford it, she said, and STM has retained that “underlying philosophy.”

“We try and keep our tuition costs as low as possible,” she said, “and we give out literally hundreds of thousands of dollars of bursaries on an ongoing basis to make even that low tuition affordable to students who otherwise couldn’t pay.”

When it comes time to pay for a post-secondary education, some STM grads will struggle, according to Doyle, so she doesn’t understand the rationale behind the city excluding them from its bursary program.

“Is there a strong rationale for that or was it an oversight?” she asked.

“I don’t know why anyone would be excluded from eligibility based on which school they went to.”

Cities surveyed

City staff surveyed 11 other municipalities, six of which currently have a bursary program. Only one of them – the District of North Vancouver – excludes independent school students and homeschoolers.

When told of the concerns being expressed by local private school officials, Wang said the city could review the program in a couple years.

He told the NOW he would discuss the concerns with his council colleagues before the program was put to a vote, but there was no public discussion about it at Monday’s council meeting before it was unanimously approved.

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