School closure mania knows no bounds and afflicts small schools in North American inner cities as well as threatened rural communities. In August of 2013, some 50 public schools in Chicago, the third largest city in the United States, are slated to close, in the largest single school shutdown in the history of American public education. Supported by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the stated goal of the initiative announced in March is to eliminate schools the city has identified as “underutilized.” North of the line, inner city schools in the Ontario cities of Kingston and London face the axe. Moncton’s downtown high school is on life support, and five of Nova Scotia’s 14 numbered rural schools are about to be shuttered forever.
What could Chicago inner city schools possibly have in common with small schools in Nova Scotia’s far flung rural communities? After all, Chicago, with a population of about 2.7 million, has a public school system that this year served about 404,000 students attending 681 schools, The entire province of Nova Scotia, by comparison, enrolls some 122,000 students in fewer than 430 schools, Whether urban or rural, small, underutilized schools do face the same threat – the spectre of a a centralizing, bureaucratic school system wedded to outdated school size models and bent on eliminating the outliers, small schools offering education on a more human scale.
One of Chicago’s public schools slated for closure is in the inner city neighbourhood of West Pullman, where census figures show the population fell by about 7,000, or 19 percent, between 2000 and 2010. Nearly a quarter of all mortgaged properties fell into foreclosure between 2008 and 2012, according to the Woodstock Institute, a housing policy group in Chicago. Deborah Moore, director of neighborhood strategy at Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago expects the population to fall, as families choose to live in neighborhoods that still have open public schools. And, she said, the number of foreclosures is sure to go up because school employees such as janitors and lunchroom workers, many of whom live nearby, will be at risk when they no longer have a paycheck.
School closures merely accelerate the urban decay, especially in African-American inner city communities. In one of Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods, Eaglewood residents have watched as abandoned homes are swiftly stripped of everything from copper pipes to toilets. In the year since Guggenheim Elementary School closed, they say, vandals have descended on the vacant building, essentially turning it into a gang war zone.
School closures in Nova Scotia tend to afflict rural, often socially disadvantaged, struggling communities. Little hamlets suffering gradual depopulation like Riverport, Wentworth, Heatherton, and Gold River/Western Shore become prime candidates for school closures, even though losing that school threatens the very existence of the community., curtailing its prospects for attracting new families.
The School Review process in Nova Scotia was effectively suspended on April 3, 2013, so why worry? Surely, Education Minister Ramona Jennex can be taken at her word that the “divisive, adversarial” Education Act regulations needed to be abandoned and a better process will be found to build upon local support for transforming depopulating small schools into community hubs. After the disaster that followed the 2008 School Review moratorium, surely we should not expect a repeat performance, simply tinkering with the status quo.
The whole School Accommodation Review process has outlived its usefulness and should be abandoned, so tinkering with the orthodox, quasi-judicial process should be off the table. In Ontario, community school advocates have aptly labelled it the ARC Sink. To bring it back simply rebranded will not work because the public, in depopulating rural communities and inner city neighbourhoods, has completely lost confidence in it as a means of generating community-based solutions to the interrelated challenges of declining enrolment and community regeneration.
Calling a halt to the School Review process is only a half-measure that will prove meaningless unless it is followed-up with broader, more comprehensive Public Engagement Community Development Strategy. We need a broader strategy that changes the whole dynamic from ‘threatened closures’ to community-based, school-centred, community economic and social development.
First, adopt a ‘Whole Community’ revitalization strategy where small schools are considered public assets and the basis for inter-generational community hub development. Deciding on school closures would no longer be the prerogative or sole responsibility of either the Education Department or the school boards.
Next, develop a new School Design Model recognizing that smaller schools, half their current size, would serve inner city and rural communities much better. Following the recommendation of American secondary school principals, high schools should be built or re-modelled to accommodate from 450 to 600 students; elementary schools downsized to between 120 and 250 pupils. The savings in student busing costs alone would be substantial and schools far healthier for students now walking to school.
Then establish a Community Development Partnership Authority ( like the innovative models in the UK) bringing together the talent and resources of six different departments, Municipal Relations, Economic and Regional Development, Education, Transportation and Infrastructure, Health, and Community Services. The priority would be to find and create community-based plans for economic and social sustainability.
And finally, institute a legitimate Public Engagement process aimed at identifying community problems and finding mutually-agreeable solutions. Some struggling schools will still close but let it be those unable to demonstrate their viability or produce workable renewal plans.
Building and retaining smaller community schools, supporting local enterprises, modelling sustainable living practices, and tapping into networked communities is the best way forward. With the clock ticking, the time to start building community-based education on a more human scale is now.
Why are schools in struggling urban and rural communities so often the prime targets for school consolidators? What happens to inner city and rural communities when their schools close? What’s wrong with the School Accommodation Review process and how can it be fixed? Would a major re-thinking of our current school closure policies produce better results for children, families and communities?