VANCOUVER — Cathy Lowenstein is the first to admit that Vancouver Talmud Torah (VTT) is really cramped for space.
As head of school, she’s seen enrolment numbers rise considerably in the decade she’s presided over Vancouver’s largest Jewish elementary school. There were 409 students in the 2004-2005 school year. Today, there are 508 occupying a building originally constructed for a maximum of 450.
“Without expanding the school, we won’t be able to continue productively,” she says. “We’d have to take our enrolment down and deny some families a Jewish education. This expansion project is urgent.”
Lowenstein is referring to the $20-million capital campaign to finance the two-part project. One will be the construction of shared underground parking with neighbouring Congregation Beth Israel, and the second will be the addition of 42,000 square feet of space to the school and the revitalization of the remaining 38,000 square feet.
The school has received a $5-million gift from the Gordon and Leslie Diamond Foundation, contingent upon raising the remaining $15 million. As of earlier this month, $10.9 million had been raised – excluding the Diamond gift – and the capital campaigners were focused on the final $4.1 million, which they hope to raise by the end of next month.
If they can do it, the VTT can begin the expansion in June 2014. If not, the school will have to wait an additional full school year before it can break ground.
“We need the community to support us, whether their gift is $18, $1,800 or $18,000,” says Sue Hector, fundraising co-chair. “Eighty per cent of donations will come from our top major donors, but we really need the community to pick up 20 per cent of the campaign.”
The expansion will be tailored to support 21st-century learning skills, which means supporting students in a more project-based, collaborative environment, says Andrea Wilkinson, VTTs director of development.
“Twenty-first-century learning is very different. It’s not about sitting in rows of desks. It’s built around creativity, collaboration and communication, with an eye to the fact that learning happens anywhere.”
While space for collaborative learning is not available right now, students have been ingenious about finding it, Lowenstein says.
“They find it under stairwells, in the washrooms, alcoves and the gymnasium. But we need more space so we can take future enrolment of up to 650 students, so that we can accommodate a preschool that’s tripled in size over the last 10 years and so that we can continue to support over 170 students who require remedial or enrichment programs. Not having the space to do that properly is really impacting us.”
Wilkinson agrees. “We’re crammed to the hilt here,” she says. “We’ve been innovative about making space, but we’re at a point where we have to expand.”
Last summer, VTT erected a portable structure on its playground to accommodate the Grade 4 class, which had previously been housed at Beth Israel. Another small piece of playground is being used for temporary parking for faculty. That means the playground is only 44 per cent of the size recommended by the province. The expansion will enlarge it, remove the portables and redesign the playground in a way that enhances play.
Hector, a VTT parent for the past 13 years, emphasized that a gift to VTT is a gift to ensure the future of Vancouver’s Jewish community.
“For me this expansion means kids in Vancouver’s Jewish community will always have a community school that will be open to them. We’re doing this to make sure everyone’s kids and grandkids get to experience how wonderful VTT is.”
Without the expansion, she adds, the school will have to revert back to 450 kids. By the time the 80 children currently enrolled in Grade 2 reach grades 6 and 7, the school won’t have room for them.
“We can’t afford not to do this,” says Michelle Gerber, co-president of the VTT board. “This is a once in a generation project, the right thing to do for the future. There comes a time when we have to do what needs to be done, and this is that time.”