Vancouver’s King David High School set to expand

Students at Vancouver's King David High School.

As it enters its 16th year, Vancouver’s King David High School is celebrating its growth with a $6.5 million expansion funded by the Diamond Foundation. Set to break ground this summer, the expansion will add four new classrooms, a new music room, an innovation lab, a faculty workroom and new change rooms for KDHS’s 227 students.

“We’re so full right now that we can’t offer all the courses and opportunities we’d like to. Our classroom utilization rate is at 96 per cent and these additions will give us the capacity to expand certain grades beyond the numbers they’re at now,” said KDHS head of school Russ Klein.

The school population has increased considerably since KDHS opened. In 2010, there were 139 students enrolled in grades 8 through 12, but in recent years, numbers have hovered between 215 and 236. Klein expects the numbers to stay around 225 in the next five years.

“We had to find our way in those first few years, to find our heart and who we wanted to be,” he reflected. “Vancouver has no shortage of great public and private schools, so we’re in a very competitive market, and when we first opened, we weren’t quite ready in terms of our infrastructure and our levels of support for teachers and administration.”

Klein said that well over 90 per cent of KDHS graduates are accepted to university, and while that remains a community value, the school’s true value proposition is graduating young adults who are healthy, balanced and have the skills to be adaptable and flexible in their lives.

“We recognize that there’s so much uncertainty and pressure on our students today. We believe we have to pay attention to our students’ mental health, so we spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to help them holistically,” he said.

While KDHS students are encouraged to volunteer, Klein and his team are creating a formal service program wherein students will volunteer on three levels: at the school, within the Jewish community, and in the broader community. “Kids and teachers need to have meaning and purpose, so the message we’re trying to send is, instead of trying to find your passion – because you don’t have to know what you’ll be when you grow up – look around and see how you can create a meaningful contribution around you. That might ignite your passion,” Klein said.

The school has added a number of programs in the 12 years that Klein has been at its helm. It now offers accelerated math and science, music, a foods program, outdoor education and a wellness counselling and mindfulness program. There are multiple off-site experiences for students, including a trip to Los Angeles, a school retreat and an annual visit to Israel for Grade 8 students. A mentoring program and a peer counselling program are also in the works.

Given the high cost of living in Vancouver, the school has placed emphasis on teacher retention. “A few years ago, after we lost seven teachers in one year, I worked with the board on a program to invest in our teachers, support their professional growth and improve their working conditions,” Klein said. “We wanted to give them incentive to be at King David rather than at a public school, so we now give teachers $5,000 over whatever they would earn at a public school. We added other perks, too, like incentivized memberships at the Jewish community centre, increased RRSP matching contributions and many more professional development opportunities.”

The strategy has worked, and while a handful of teachers have left to pursue different lifestyles, none has left to take a job elsewhere in the past two years.

Klein said the board is also cognizant of the challenges of long-term sustainability resulting from Vancouver’s affordability issue, and is focused on creating different revenue streams and strengthening its philanthropy program. An endowment campaign is underway to increase funds for tuition assistance to $5 million, from $1 million, over the next five years. Forty per cent of students at the school receive tuition assistance.

Klein measures the success of KDHS in a number of ways. One is the student attrition rate, which is just four per cent. “That’s unheard of – normally you’re close to 10 per cent,” he said. “Our students, by and large, no longer leave the school for the typical reason kids leave, because they’re happy. They’ve gotten the message that they’re supported, and that they’ll be successful when they leave. We focus on individual students and do a good job of leading them where they are and giving them opportunities to demonstrate their learning.”

Another measure of success for Klein is the messages he receives from and about KDHS graduates as they pursue their respective careers, often far from home. “We hear that our kids are getting together for (yamim tovim) and Shabbat meals when they can’t get home. They’re creating community wherever they go,” he says proudly. The word has travelled as far as Europe, he adds. “I had a family in Italy contact me specifically for this reason. They’d heard how successful our kids are at creating community once they leave high school!”