What can Metro Vancouver elementary school enrollment patterns tell us?

September 08, 2017

Public education is one of the cornerstones that has historically organized urban planning in the City of Vancouver. Starting with documents like the Harland Bartholomew plan in 1928, the role of the public school and access to it became a planning and urban design principle for neighbourhoods. Public schools are one of the first examples of social-purpose real estate centred on meeting the educational needs of the growing city.

In this study of public elementary school enrollments in Metro Vancouver, we looked at the state of enrollments over a five-schoolyear cycle from 2011/2012 to 2016/2017. The spatial and tabular data was opened from the Ministry of Education’s Analysis and Reporting via the DataBC open data portal. These enrollment statistics are based on the number of Full Time Equivalent students and not headcount over this time period.

At a regional level, Metro Vancouver saw an overall increase in public elementary school enrollment of 4.4% or 6,601 FTEs. However, when individual school boards are examined, the three districts that saw the largest growth in elementary school enrollments were New Westminster (12.2% or 456), Langley (10.9% or 1,186) and Surrey (8.0% or 3,082). Only two districts in the region saw declining public elementary school enrollments: Richmond at -3.5% or 401 FTEs decline, and Vancouver at -0.4% or -112 FTEs decline.

The patterns that emerge in this visualization are most interesting in terms of clusters and outliers, both in enrollment growth and decline. Of course, specific school enrollments can increase or decrease due to idiosyncratic factors like temporary partial closures for earthquake repair, an opening or closure of a nearby school, and school-specific policy shifts. Moreover, elementary schools see a flux in their enrollment population as larger and smaller cohorts move in and out of the school. By establishing a 10% increase to 10% decrease buffer, this category attempts to accommodate this flux. Furthermore, the unique occurrence of “annexes” in the City of Vancouver was recognized, as these annexes to larger elementary schools were often smaller in terms of base enrollment.  

From these contexts, enrollment in Metro Vancouver public elementary schools shows several distinct patterns. Enrollments in and near the City of Vancouver’s downtown core remain strong, stable, and, in many cases, growing. Outside the downtown core, elementary schools on the city’s east and west side are either stable or in decline. Growth and stability in public elementary school enrollments can be found throughout the region, particularly in the northeast sector and south of the Fraser River.

The reasons behind these enrollment patterns offer an opportunity and a need for further research. As an example, these patterns are likely affected by larger and changing demographic and household formation patterns and choices like smaller families with fewer children. Ongoing concerns over affordable housing for both renters and owners, augmented by the space and design needs of housing families with children on local incomes, likely influence where these households settle and, in turn, enrollments. This visualization attempts to provide a view on the family friendliness of our communities and their capacity to nurture the next generation.