School closure battles are raging, once again, in Canadian rural and urban inner city school districts, putting local communities through another endurance test. In Nova Scotia, small villages like Petite Riviere, Maitland, River John, Wentworth, and Mill Village are fighting to keep both their elementary schools and communities alive. Out West in Regina, urban reformers associated with Real Renewal are continuing their battle, now focused on saving the historic Connaught School in the Cathedral District. In central Canada, the City of Kingston is the epicentre of the struggle to save downtown community schools like the venerable Kingston Collegiate and Vocational School from extinction. All of the disparate groups share one key objective – lifting what Toronto school reformers David Clandfield and George Martell recently termed the “iron cage” around our public schools.
Something is definitely stirring in rural and small town Nova Scotia. Community resilience is emerging from the bottom- up, as grassroots community groups, one-after-another, are rejecting the provincial closure agenda and embracing a Third Option – transforming their under-utilized small schools into “community hubs,” building around an “anchor tenant” – the P-6 population of students and teachers. Instead of accepting the law of demographic gravity, they are organizing to re-build their communities and looking to the school boards to join in that project.
To save small communities, start by saving their schools. That sounds like common sense but it runs counter to the “Bigger is Better” mentality of provincial and school board facilities planners. Saving inner city neighborhoods and plugging the rural population drain should be more of a priority.
Look around Canadian cities and outlying remote rural areas. Who is standing up for maintaining the integrity of the urban core? Without rural schools, where will the children and families come from to re-generate the declining rural economy? Without them, how long do communities survive?
Impact Assessment Reports, following the Department of Education formula, direct school committees to choose between two losing propositions – the status quo or further consolidation. The “Big Box” school plan down the road is usually the carrot. In a few cases, the second option is worse, splitting up school families and busing them to scattered sites over poor country roads.
Regina school reformers were quick to recognize the potential of the Community Hub model for breaking the cycle and transforming school communities. More recently, Nova Scotia School Study Committees at Petite Riviere, Maitland, and River John declined to play that losing game and generated their own community-based Third Options. Not content to seek a reprieve, they got busy and produced incredibly innovative, community-building activities to fill the empty spaces and ensure the long-term sustainability of their schools.
What is this new species known as a “Community Hub School?” “A community hub,” according to leading advocate Dr. David Clandfield, is “a central gathering place for people, their activities, and events. “
It’s more than just “a high-use multipurpose centre” and more of “a two-way hub” where “children’s learning activities within the school contribute to community development” and, in turn, “ community activities contribute to, and enrich, children’s learning within the school.”
Integrating centralized child, youth, and family services into the schools (as is the case with the Saskatchewan SchoolPLUS or Nova Scotia SchoolsPlus model) is only a small part of the equation. A true community hub is a genuine partnership, building around the schools and drawing far more upon local, volunteer, and community enterprise.
Once popular myths about “Bigger is Better” consolidation ventures are being exploded at every “Public Hearing.” Small schools are living examples of “personalized learning” and not just the theme for a cutting edge PD program. Renovating small schools is far more cost effective than building new oversized facilities with the overblown capital, infrastructure, and transportation costs factored in. Local taxpayers do not ultimately win when the costs of maintaining or disposing of abandoned schools are downloaded on rural municipalities. Putting young kids ages 4 to 10 on buses for from 2 to 3 hours a day is not only very unhealthy, but puts them at higher risk of bullying and is nonsensical in the digital age.
Public hearings in Petite Riviere, Maitland, and River John turned out virtually the entire community. Speaker after speaker asks – who here is actually in favour of “Big Box” elementary proposals and busing elementary kids to such distant schools? The answer – No one, except perhaps for battle-worn board staff suffering in silence.
What would a Community Hub School look like? The Maitland Plan would open the school to community partnerships and lease excess space to NSCC Truro for continuing education programs, expand Boy Scout activities, and serve as a base for CHARTS, the East Hants arts festival group. Up in River John, the Study Committee has secured the return of the RCMP office, a local film-maker, FLAWed Productions , the SCORE Pre-School program, and the support of Maritime children’s author Sheree Fitch.
The Petite Plus plan is the most adventuresome and exciting, embracing innovation, local artists, and videoconferencing. With a $2 million renovation, the Petite Plus plan saves local taxpayers between $6 million and $8 million of the cost of a new Big Box elementary school.
Putting facilities first is not a winning strategy if we are truly committed to building “learning communities.” A Third Option is the best way forward because it challenges school communities themselves to come together, to develop their own Community Hub plan, and to breathe new life into public education. Thinking small, dreaming bigger, opening the doors, and turning small schools into community hubs is now the wave of the near future.
Why are Community Hub School proposals gaining public support and traction? Who is really opposed to giving local communities a chance to organize a plan for community regeneration? Will the rising Community Hub School movement succeed in lifting the so-called “iron cage” around the public school system?