Jack Knox: Camping out for prized kindergarten slot human nature

It’s 7 a.m. Monday, the thermometer struggling to reach zero, and Kim Coy is breaking camp: tent, canopy, propane heater, sleeping bag.

Beacon Hill homeless nest? No, Colwood schoolground. Coy has been parked behind Sangster Elementary since 3 p.m. Friday, has spent the weekend with a score of other parents anxious to register their kids for nature kindergarten.

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With just 20 spots — 10 for boys, 10 for girls — open in the Sooke school district program next September, spending Super Bowl weekend camped on cold concrete was what it took to guarantee a place.

It was a similar scene outside James Bay’s South Park school two weeks ago when kids were signed up for the Victoria district’s new nature kindergarten.

It's an unintended consequence of the emergence of “choice” schools — French immersion, sports academies, traditional programs and so on — over the past decade. B.C. parents have become consumers, shopping for education in the same way they would a computer. And just like on Boxing Day, the best deals go to those willing to stand in line.

The choice programs aren’t the only ones to inspire camp-ins, though. In the Sooke district, one of the few in B.C. with a growing enrolment, families are piling into some neighbourhoods so quickly that there’s fierce competition just to get children into the local school. Parents slept outside Langford's Happy Valley and Lakewood elementary schools prior to kindergarten registration last week.

Is there not a better way? The scene outside Sangster — gas barbecues, lawn chairs, porta-potty, two lines of tents (one for the registration of boys, one for girls) and a hammock strung across a swing set — did look pretty weird, like a cross between a provincial campground and a 1980s Soviet bread line.

“We would like to discourage it, but there’s not much we can do,” says Jim Cambridge, the superintendent of the Sooke district.

The problem is coming up with a workable alternative. “It’s a dilemma, for sure, and one we debate every year.”

The current process is more than unseemly; it’s unfair to single parents or others unable to camp out.

But the only real alternative, a lottery, brings its own problems. Such systems are more likely to draw parents who throw their child’s name in the hat just to keep their options open. Those parents are less likely to commit to a program; there is greater student retention when schools are filled on a first-come, first-served basis.

Besides, stand-in-line parents are only being asked to sacrifice a little time, not a kidney. If you were happy to camp out for Pearl Jam tickets at age 15, you should be willing to do the same for your child at 35.

Also, when it comes to outdoor schooling, it’s good to have families who don’t mind spooning with Mother Nature for a couple of nights.

Coy, who already has one son in nature kindergarten, shrugged off the weekend discomfort: “There was good camaraderie, and the program’s worth it.” Great teacher, great kids, and an 11:1 adult-to-student ratio when an early childhood education specialist joins the class for the morning as, rain or shine, they march off to their outdoor classroom in the Royal Roads woods adjoining the school. “Three days is nothing for that.”

She was echoed by Ray Arnold, who arrived at Sangster in time to be eighth in line for one of the 10 spots open to boys. “The idea of the program is really intriguing. My whole family loves the outdoors and my son already has a keen interest in it.”

Arnold, who has his own painting business, brought a tent and sleeping bag, was toasty warm under four quilts Sunday night while waiting to register his four-year-old boy, Hunter. “I would do anything for my son.”

Besides, he liked meeting parents who were similarly invested in their kids’ future. “I realize not all parents take the same interest in their child’s well-being,” he said.

That's one reason many families opt for choice programs: They think there will be more well-adjusted students. If that appears to create a two-tiered system, well, parents have long looked to buy houses in areas with “good” schools. This just takes geography out of the equation.

Arnold appreciates that the school district pushed ahead with nature kindergarten when it would have been easier to say no. “It’s great that we have the opportunity.”

It got chilly, though. “It has been a while since I camped in February.”

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