The clock is now ticking for many of Canada’s rural communities. Declining enrollments are gradually emptying small community schools and provincial departments of education are attempting to address the “excess space capacity” with facilities planning models that promote regional consolidation, tend to ignore local community interests, and signal the death knell for small schools.
School accommodation reviews are the harbinger of school closures, essentially ripping the heart out of rural communities. Shuttering rural schools does far more than emotional damage. A June 2008 Canadian Senate Agriculture and Forestry Committee report, Beyond Freefall, identified school abandonment as a major contributor to the cycle of rural poverty. http://www.parl.gc.ca/Content/SEN/Committee/392/agri/rep/rep09jun08-e.pdf
From Nova Scotia to Ontario to British Columbia, School Reviews become the defacto rural education strategy. In Nova Scotia, the School Review process, revamped in 2008, continues under rather legalistic rules that formalize a process pitting school boards against the communities they purport to serve. Parents and families caught up in the process soon discover a regulated, quasi-judicial “chopping block” on the road to a more consolidated, regionalized, and remote school system. Being granted a reprieve is all most small, rural schools can hope for under the current School Review system. http://www.capebretonpost.com/News/Local/2012-05-16/article-2981277/Schools-vital-to-rural-areas-group/1
The Schools at the Centre policy brief, produced by the Nova Scotia Small Schools Initiative and presented on May 15, 2012 to Education Minister Ramona Jennex , attempts to change the prevailing dynamic. http://www.facebook.com/NovaScotiaSmallSchoolsInitiative It calls for a moratorium on School Closures for one year to provide the time to develop a coherent, coordinated Rural Strategy aimed at revitalizing threatened rural communities. The Delegation challenged the Minister and her Department to take the lead, working with Rural and Economic Development and other agencies, in developing a “Schools at the Centre” revitalization plan, giving rural Nova Scotia communities some reason for hope in the future. http://thechronicleherald.ca/novascotia/97233-committee-urges-province-to-keep-rural-schools-open
A coordinated, strategic approach to rural education and sustainability is imperative to the future of rural communities. It is not really a new concept, because many Provinces and Territories have at least formally adopted such policies. A few examples of Rural Strategies should suffice:
Manitoba: “Collaboration among school divisions, the provincial Government and community agencies is essential to the articulation and implementation of effective strategies and actions which will ensure a high quality of educational opportunity for all students in rural and remote areas of our province.” (Rural Education in Manitoba: Defining Challenges, Creating Solutions, 5)
Alberta: “As part of Alberta’s plan, a Minister’s Advisory Committee on Small and Rural School Programming was to be established along with “incentives…to encourage rural school jurisdictions and educational institutions to work with community agencies to make their schools and facilities a hub of services for children, communities and lifelong learning”. (A Place to Grow: Alberta’s Rural Development Strategy, Executive Summary)
Ontario:“Our plan for rural Ontario recognizes that when young people have access to good education in local schools, our communities can grow stronger.” ( Ontario’s Rural Plan Update 2006)
Prince Edward Island: “Given that many people prefer a rural lifestyle, rural communities that offer comparable levels of connectivity and educational services will soon be able to compete with urban centres for residents with high-quality talent and expertise, especially those communities with a vibrant local culture and identity. If rural communities can attract, and retain, even a small percentage of people seeking to raise their families in a rural environment – whether they earn their living in the community or an urban centre – these citizens could provide rural Prince Edward Island with the economic foundation it needs to maintain its way of life and achieve a higher quality of life”.( Rural Action Plan A Rural Economic Development Strategy for Prince Edward Island, 2010)
While provincial governments have various departments responsible for education, regional development, health, and community services, they still tend to operate in comfortable “silos”. In the case of Nova Scotia, the new Kids & Learning First Education Plan is a prime example. It contains a smattering of good ideas, but these in no way constitute the kind of analytical thinking and integrated planning necessary to tackle the issues of rural education, rural depopulation and rural economics, not to mention the most basic right of any child — a quality educational experience within her or his own community.
The members of Nova Scotia’s Small Schools Delegation challenged the Minister and her Department to take the lead in “reframing” the whole issue. Rather than relying upon the School Review process to simply shed small rural schools, why not embrace a new concept of schooling? A new Smaller Human Scale model that recognizes the centrality of schools in rural communities and one that demonstrates the viability of small schools run in an affordable, efficient fashion tapping into the potential of networked school communities.
Where do we start to address the core problem? The NS Small Schools Initiative has recommended that:
1. The Minister of Education announce the Department of Education’s intention to take the lead in developing a Rural Revitalization Strategy, working in partnership with Economic and Rural Development for an integrated government-wide approach.
2. The Minister of Education take the lead in advancing the Kids & Learning First plan by embracing our Schools at the Centre philosophy aimed at revitalizing rural education through a province-wide, community-building and development strategy.
3. The Minister of Education announce a moratorium on all School Review processes, effective June 1, 2012, affecting all schools recommended for closure in the current provincial cycle of school accommodation reviews.
4. The Department of Education build on the Nova Scotia Virtual School project by initiating a Rural Schools Online Education Network, based upon the Newfoundland model, creating digitally-networked schools and taking fuller advantage of distance education in the 21st century guise of virtual schooling.
5. The Department of Education take a lead role in facilitating the partnerships necessary to help small rural communities develop their school structures into multi-use community assets, through a public engagement process, involving all interested groups, including school boards, regional development agencies, school councils, teachers, local boards of trade, local government and citizens.
What’s stopping Canada’s provincial governments from tackling the challenge of revitalizing rural education? Why do provinces like Nova Scotia, Ontario, and New Brunswick rely almost exclusively upon a School Review process to guide their policies? Can we find the leadership to take up this challenge?