STARR, David

Author Tags: Education

As the principal of one of the most diverse elementary schools in Canada, Edmonds Community School in Burnaby, David Starr provides portraits of students who are surprisingly hopeful despite the many traumas they have faced in From Bombs to Books: Refugee Children, Their Families and an Exceptional Canadian School (Lorimer $22.95). Sometimes funny, sometimes touching and inspirational, Bombs to Books shows how children from troubled pasts can often put their families' grief and trauma behind them. The resiliency of children to adversity should not have to be news—but in an age when many parents are over-protective, Starr and his students have been featured in The Vancouver Sun, The Province, Globe and Mail, and on CBC Radio and Global News.

In David Starr's Golden Game (Lorimer 2017), a Syrian refugee, playing on a soccer team of fellow refugees, discovers how to cope with cripping flashbacks.


From Bombs to Books: Refugee Children, Their Families and an Exceptional Canadian School (Lorimer 2011) $22.95 978-1-55277-860-9

The Nor'Wester (Ronsdale 2017) $11.95 978-1-55380-493-2

Golden Game (Lorimer 2017) 9781459412316 $12.95

[BCBW 2017]

From Bombs to Books
Excerpt (2011)

At Edmonds School in Burnaby, six-out-of-ten students are learning to speak English as a second language; eight-out-of-ten don’t speak English at home; and one-third come from refugee backgrounds. Many have witnessed horrific violence. David Starr’s From Bombs To Books tells the inspiring story how such children, if they are well-loved and well-taught, can be remarkably resilient to adversity. The system works.

Here is an excerpt

Edmonds Street has always been a place of new beginnings. The Scottish, Irish, and English arrived here more than a century ago, soon followed by successive waves of Japanese, German, Italian, and Polish immigrants.

In the 1970s and 1980s the Indians and Chinese came, joined by Bosnians and Croatians, Koreans and Filipinos. Today the neighbourhood is an assortment of small shops and businesses that speak to its current demographics: a Balkan butcher shop next to an Afghan restaurant; an African grocery store adjacent to a tattoo parlour; a temple across the street from an adult video store, the call to prayer competing with pornography.

Edmonds lies in the southern corner of Burnaby, British Columbia, a wealthy suburb of Vancouver, a city of glass towers and snow-capped mountains, still basking in the after-glow of the Winter Olympics. Although it has long been the poorest part of town, new development is finally happening after years of neglect. Condominiums are taking over
the vacant lots once occupied by boarded-up buildings and crack houses. New businesses are tentatively opening along the street. These slow steps towards gentrification notwithstanding, this neighbourhood is still a rough place—a place where newcomers and third-generation residents alike navigate the landmines of addiction, violence, and poverty.

There are many problems in the neighbourhood, but it is still a tightknit community—one in which residents take pride. That pride is evident in the regular neighbourhood clean-ups, in the Santa Claus parade, and in the faces of the children who attend Edmonds Community School. In a profoundly personal and concrete way, that school represents the most distinctive aspect of the community: the dreams of a better life that the refugees and immigrants who live there have carried with them from their homelands.

From the outside, Edmonds Community School isn’t much to look at. Originally founded in 1894, the school is housed today in a two-storey white-and-green building that was built just after the Second World War to accommodate the growing number of families moving into the neighbourhood.

Over the years, the school has counted several famous people among its alumni, including Carrie-Anne Moss of The Matrix and Hollywood star Michael J. Fox. But the neighbourhood and the school have changed a great deal in the almost forty years since Fox attended, and the only artifacts left of him are yellowing class rosters and an old yearbook photograph.

Edmonds lacks the flash of newer schools in other parts of the city and, despite recent updates, the place seems a little tired. The pavement in the parking lot is cracked, the playground needs upgrading, the gravel soccer field has a habit of flooding in the winter rains and, last year, a cherry tree on the south side of the school—one of the few green things left on the grounds—fell sick and was chopped down. Edmonds is, from the outside at least, a fairly ordinary place. But looks can be deceiving.

The view from inside the front door is very different. The school is spotless, with new flooring throughout. Artwork covers the walls and, in the foyer, there is a beautiful mosaic that encapsulates the school’s demographics. Colourful clay tiles surround a map of the world and earthen “luggage tags,” one made by each student in the school, cover the walls. In 2009 Keith and Celia Rice-Jones, well-known Vancouver-area artists, were commissioned through the Artist in Residence program to make the mosaic,
entitled From Many Places—a fitting choice since the school currently serves
students from almost fifty countries.

During its recent history, the school has become a remarkable experiment in multi-cultural education, tolerance, and diversity.

Nearly 100 students of refugee families from countries such as Ethiopia, the Congo, Sudan, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq now call Edmonds their home. The school and the refugee population it serves have frequently been featured in local, provincial, and national media. The Burnaby Newsleader and Burnaby Now have run articles about Edmonds, and the Vancouver Sun recently ran a comprehensive series on refugees in the neighbourhood that spotlighted the critical role the school plays in supporting them. Edmonds has also been prominently featured on Global Television, and twice in three years the Vancouver Province ran positive articles about the school’s diversity and its students’ athletic prowess.

But there has been negative publicity as well. The Fraser Institute—a right-wing think tank that takes assessment numbers from the controversial Foundational Skills Assessment (a reading, writing, and math assessment written by students in Grades 4 and 7)—has singled out Edmonds as one of the “worst” schools in British Columbia. Traditionally, the school ranks low in these assessments—and not just low, but very low. The school was fourth from the bottom on a recent “report card,” and the rankings have always been a source of anger in the building.

Why do I care so deeply about Edmonds’ scores? I care because I am the principal of Edmonds and because the Fraser Institute’s assessment is simply wrong. In my view, the Fraser’s rankings misrepresent the truth about my school. Far from being one of the worst schools in the province, Edmonds is actually one of the best at what it does.

The Fraser Institute fails to take into consideration some essential realities: six-out-of-ten Edmonds Students are currently still learning to speak English as a second language; eight-out- of-ten don’t speak English at home; and, fully one-third of our students come from refugee backgrounds and often arrive at the school at ten, eleven, or twelve years of age, having never attended a school before.

And these are only a few of the special circumstances that affect our students. In many cases, they have witnessed scenes of horrific violence and bear the scars of significant physical and psychological trauma. Yet when these students reach the school, they are welcomed by the open arms of staff members who, with a skill-set second to none, start them on their journey through the school system. Often new students can neither understand a word of English nor read or write in their own first languages. Yet, with
just one or two years of instruction, these children learn to function proficiently in English and find themselves well on their way towards catching up to—and frequently exceeding—their native-born peers.

In some ways, I came to Edmonds with almost as much to learn as my students. I have lived in British Columbia since the age of four, when my family emigrated from England. I was educated in a small rural high school and then at Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia. I spent eight years teaching social studies and English literature in the comfortably middle-class suburb of Coquitlam, and then—armed with a newly acquired Masters Degree in Administration and Leadership from UBC—spent two years working as a vice principal in a small rural public school in the eastern Fraser Valley.

My first two years as a school administrator involved a learning curve like no other I’ve ever experienced: school finances, law, dealing with difficult people, and working with social services, the police, the First Nations bands, and a host of community partners was an education in itself. But when I began working as vice principal at Byrne Creek Secondary School in 2006, it was immediately clear to me that small-town schools with predominantly white and First Nations students were worlds apart from the large, urban, multicultural community where I now found myself.

To begin with, my background made me the quintessential fish out of water. But then something happened. Simply put, I fell in love with Byrne Creek when I realized just how important the school was to the families and students who attended it. I got to know them and, as relationships developed, I learned of their incredible experiences— experiences unlike anything most of us can even imagine. I also learned that, just like my parents, these refugees and immigrants had come to Canada mainly to secure both an education and a future for their children.

The penny dropped for me one day when I was registering a new student from Afghanistan. “We came so that our children could attend school and have a good life,” the child’s mother told me through an interpreter. I quickly agreed with her that school was indeed important, although I was referring to school in a general, abstract way.

“No,” she said forcefully, her voice quaking with emotion as she touched the office wall. “You don’t understand. We came for this school.” I blinked for a moment as I took this in. Byrne Creek was a new school beset by difficulties, a school the Fraser Institute didn’t like any more than from many places

And yet this mother had travelled thousands of kilometres to put her most precious possessions—her children—in this school and in my care. I carried the hopes and expectations of that mother with me to Edmonds Community School two years later when I was offered the position of principal. Edmonds was a very good fit for me. The majority of students at Edmonds have siblings at Byrne Creek, and the same district support staff—settlement workers, psychologists, learning support teachers, and the like—service both schools. Although the students are younger at Edmonds, the faces and the names are the same as at the high school and, in many ways, the story of Edmonds is incomplete without including the story of Byrne Creek.

Edmonds and Byrne Creek are not easy places to work. In an age of shrinking budgets, the spectre of reduced services hangs constantly over the schools, which have relied on additional staffing and resources from the school district to do their job effectively. In addition, the challenges of working in the inner city—poverty, violence, and drugs—are always present here. The level of commitment demanded of the staff is high; here
emotional burn-out is an occupational hazard. But for those who come, stay, and learn to love the students and the neighbourhood, the rewards are extraordinary.

At both Byrne Creek and Edmonds, I’ve been privileged to be part of a team of educators, counsellors, and community service providers who have dedicated their careers to helping some of Canada’s newest and perhaps most vulnerable residents integrate and succeed. The work of these dedicated professionals has become part of the stories of the refugees at these schools, and this book is as much about them as it is about the students and parents.

But always at the heart of the book are the families. This book chronicles their journeys and their experiences and celebrates the roles that Edmonds Community and Byrne Creek Secondary schools have played in educating, acculturating, and welcoming people who have fled from the most dangerous places on earth.