Archive for the ‘Rural Education’ Category

The Toronto Globe and Mail’s six part series, The Daycare Project, has put Early Years Education back where it belongs on the public policy agenda.  From October 19 to 26, Erin Anderssen and her team did a masterful job presenting the challenge facing the Canadian and provincial governments attempting to provide safe, secure, high quality daycare and early years education.

Since the federal child education initiative, developed by the Hon. Ken Dryden (costed at $5 billion over 4 years), was abandoned in 2006 by the incoming Stephen Harper government, provinces have been scrambling to come up with plans of their own.  Access to high quality, affordable child care presents serious problems for ordinary working families.  Even today, the shortage of government-regulated space remains among Canada’s most pressing child-care problems. Across the country, families are forced to rely on the “grey market” – and, Anderssen discovered, “leaving their children with caregivers who may not even have first-aid training, paying whatever is asked, and hoping for the best.”

ChildCareCostsProponents of universal state funded early learning, championed by Margaret McCain and the Canadian Council for Early Child Development, are doggedly determined in making their case.  While The Globe and Mail series had a universal publicly-funded early learning tilt, it also demonstrated quite conclusively that the Quebec model of $7.00 per day early learning costing $2.3 billion annually is cost prohibitive in other provinces. Indeed, Quebec’s current plan accounts for two-thirds of the $3.7 billion now being spent by all governments.

The Daycare Project series went beyond simply analyzing, once again, the public policy conundrum, and attempted to look for successful models that might be applicable in other countries or provinces.  A survey of daycare regimes in seven different countries seemed to give the nod to that of Sweden, a universal, affordable, education-based system developed over a 20 year period from 1970 until the early 1990s.  The Swedish model is highlighted, but no mention whatsoever is made of Finland where early education begins at age 7.  Most educational comparisons of Sweden and Finland  tend to highlight the superior performance results achieved by Finnish students.

When it came to Canada, The Globe and Mail, for once, looked to a province other than Ontario for its exemplar.  “For a top-notch child care system close to home,” Anderssen stated, “Canadians should look to the nation’s smallest province.”  In choosing PEI as the best Canadian model, the series ruled out Quebec as being too expensive and instead endorsed a model combining public and private services, but largely architected by Kathleen Flanagan, an OISE student of Dr. Charles Pascal. In short, the PEI model is Ontario, modified and improved.

The Ten Lessons presented by Anderssen to guide the national policy discussion pay lip-service to the $7 a day Quebec model, and are drawn overwhelmingly from the PEI experience over the past two or three years. “Good education and a modern family policy can start long before kids arrive at kindergarten,” she concludes, before presenting this laundry list of lessons:

1. Make the economic case clear

2. Call it education

3. Create enough regulated care spaces

4. Make fees affordable, consistent – and capped

5. Train the teachers – and pay them for it

6. Location, location, location

7. Infant care is complicated

8. After-school care shouldn’t be an afterthought

9. Parents are part of the system

10. Set a target, track your progress

Most of the identified “lessons” are sound, but it’s difficult to accept the idea that the PEI model is scalable.  It’s a tiny province with a population of 140,000, one-tenth the size of Montreal, with fewer than 6,000 children under five years of age. The total cost of its early childhood education initiative is only $7 million, compared to the more than $2.3 billion Quebec child care system.  Declining school enrollments also mean that PEI schools have plenty of surplus space, unlike most of Canada’s fast growing suburban school districts.

Omitting Ontario from the cross-national comparison was quite instructive.  While the Ontario Liberal Government has been quick to proclaim the success of its $1.5 billion full-day kindergarten program, the jury is still out on its effectiveness. By imposing full-day kindergarten, that province has incited much opposition, mainly centred on its full steam ahead bulldozing strategy.

Why did Ontario become such an early learning battleground? Private and coop day care operators facing dislocation have found common cause with the Institute of Marriage and Family in Canada. The universalists, spearheaded by Dr. Pascal, hit a brick wall in the form of Don Drummond whose 2012 Austerity Report dismissed full-day kindergarten as an unaffordable social program.  In addition, family values advocates have found the weak spot in the Ontario plan – the by-passing of the family in the continuum of early child care. In many ways, there is much more to be learned from Ontario than from Quebec and PEI on the matter of achieving better early childhood education.

Where might Canadian education policy makers look for models of how to improve early childhood education in Canada?  Why are the Quebec and Ontario models no longer seen as viable, affordable policy options?  Do provinces like Nova Scotia have more to learn from Ontario and Finland than from PEI?  Where do parents and families fit in the proposed childcare models? In simplest terms, who is framing the national early learning debate, and for what real purpose?

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A well-timed Editorial in the Halifax Chronicle Herald, entitled “Rural Renaissance: Unlocking Potential(October 19, 2013) called upon Maritimers to embrace the “re-imagining of public services” and identified the Nova Scotia Small Schools Initiative proposal to create “a new model of community school” that delivers “education efficiently on a human scale” and serves as “a focus for community development.” This Nova Scotia grassroots proposal, the paper noted, was just one of many innovative ideas given new life by a remarkable gathering known simply as “The Georgetown Conference.”

Faye'sGeneralStoreFrom October 3 to 5, some 275 community leaders and activists (including me) gathered in rural Prince Edward Island for the much-anticipated Georgetown Conference 2013 with stimulating speeches and workshops organized around the theme “Rural Redefined.”  Co-chaired by former UPEI President Wade MacLauchlan, Oxford businessman John Bragg, Caisse Populaire Acadien boss Gilles Lepage, and Newfoundland Rising Tide Theatre founder  Donna Butt,  it was aimed at “harnessing the spirit that exists in rural communities” and at recognizing and further stimulating “innovative efforts.”  

Bringing together community leaders like Acadia University President Ray Ivany, Yarmouth Mayor Pamela Mood,  and  prominent CRA pollster Don Mills with passionate rural activists such as Leif Helmer of Petite Riviere, NS, Dr. Michael Fox of Sackville, NB, and Dayle Eschelby of Lockport, NS was long overdue and worthwhile in, and of,  itself. New bridges have already been built in defense of the vanishing settlements in the countryside.   

Sharing our views provided 275 more “points of light,” but will it – can it—accomplish any more than that?  Some of us have more robust aspirations – to initiate the significant change required to arrest the rural decline and set the Maritimes on the road to rural regeneration.

The Georgetown Conference 2013 initiative may help to dispel popular myths that rural Maritime life is bucolic, backward and a ‘deadweight’ in the modern global economy. Claims that Nova Scotia’s economic stagnation is caused by a “failure to urbanize” have likely been put to rest.  The Nova Scotia Commission on Our New Economy, headed by Ivany and now on election hiatus, has probably acquired some fresh momentum.

Whether the Conference can bridge the great divide apparent in Atlantic Canada’s emerging economic vision for the future is far more problematic.  Judging from the recent 4Front Atlantic Conference, held May 30, 2013 in Halifax, the 250 top business leaders and rising urban entrepreneurs may be proceeding with a different regional economic development agenda.

The 4Front Atlantic movement has proposed an Economic Positioning Strategy (GPS) for the region’s immediate as well as the long-term future.  Coming up with that plan was an impressive show of business solidarity, but where does the three-year odyssey leave rural communities? The five “stretch goals” of 4Front Atlantic for the next five years tended to focus , much like that of the former Darrell Dexter Government, on expanding trade, promoting wealth creation and providing better jobs. Securing young, talented workers and pushing-up immigration levels were also touted as a kind of miracle cure for what ails our provincial economies.

4Front Atlantic’s keynote speaker, Dominic Barton, Managing Director of McKinsey & Company, is actually a well-known promoter of global trade and economic growth driven by urbanization. Cities, not rural and small town communities, according to Barton, are the vital cogs in a world where 440 cities produce 60% of the world’s GDP.  He also predicts urbanizing trends will swell urban, middle class markets by more than 1 billion people by 2030.  Two of our leading sectors, health care and education, continue to lag, in Barton’s words,  as “the most techonologically-retarded” industries. Rising commodity prices will also pose challenges for the 1.2 million new urban dwellers a week seeking “a reasonable quality of life.” 

Promoting Maritime ‘hub cities’ and ‘townsizing’ rural communities only advances urbanization.  It also runs counter to the fundamental goals and aspirations of the rural community leaders and activists who gathered in Georgetown, PEI. Some 45 per cent of Nova Scotians are rural dwellers living in places of 5,000 people or less and the pattern is similar in the other provinces. Promoting rural sustainability is what drives them and they are not about to be swayed by visions of jobs ‘trickling down’ from mega projects.  Innovation in today’s world is, more and more, being driven by small idea incubators and start-ups located outside cities and increasingly scattered throughout the countryside. This is evidenced by regular reports of the remarkable success of a host of Nova Scotia tech start-up companies.

What lessons are we gradually learning? Traditional business operations are proving to be surprisingly slow footed in the fast changing, globally-networked economy. Yet, without sustainable, thriving rural communities, the long–term well-being and food security of cities and towns is imperiled in the decades ahead.  

Now is not the time to give up on rural regeneration. Moving schools to the centre of community renewal and development could well be the starting point. It is a critical piece of the agenda embracing support for innovative local enterprises, saving our farms, building, modelling sustainable living practices, and establishing networked communities. Building and preserving smaller schools is gradually being recognized as an essential building block for a revitalization in this corner of rural and small town Canada.

What’s driving the Georgetown Movement of rural revitalization?  Does Rural Regeneration actually figure in the Economic Growth and Global Trade visions of today’s business leaders? Will schools and children find a place on the go forward economic development agenda?

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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.

SchoolClosureChicago2013What 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?

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School closure processes, thinly disguised as School Reviews or School Accommodation Reviews, are definitely in bad odour.  In Canadian school districts as diverse as Downtown Kingston, the inner core of Regina, and the villages and towns of rural Nova Scotia, local parents and taxpayers erupt during “March School Closure Madness” in fierce opposition to regional school boards pursuing school consolidation and looking to cut operations costs by closing ‘disposable’ school properties.

SOSKingstonLogoA recent research paper, released in July 2012 and written by two Ontario professors confirmed what small school advocates everywhere learn through bitter personal experience – that community members and municipalities have no real say in closure decisions.  Bill Irwin of the University of Western Ontario and Mark Seasons of University of Waterloo identified significant shortcomings in school board accommodation review processes.  Although the Ontario process, established in 2005, purport to be “consultative,” they were found to be “not fully participatory and were “rarely collaborative in nature” and leaving school boards “solely responsible for final decisions.””

The School Review Process, according to Irwin, “created an adversarial atmosphere”  and “pitted community against community and neighborhood against neighborhood, where there will be winners and a loser.”  Halting the process, they contend, would recognize that schools are “key to building a community’s social capital ” and seek instead “alternative decision-making models” drawn from community planning and development.

After a full cycle of “School Closure Madness,’ Nova Scotia’s  Education Minister Ramona Jennex reached the same conclusion. Over the vocal objections of a few school boards, she announced on April 3, 2013 a province-waide  moratorium on School Reviews pending the development of a fairer, more community-based process. What comes next in Nova Scotia is now the critical public policy question.

Holding “public hearings” on hard proposals to close schools is not conducive to healthy public consultation and is usually the kiss of death to parental engagement. It’s time for a completely new approach, supplanting school consolidation planning exercises with an open, transparent and inclusive process that fosters community-building and gives proper weight to a new set of priorities – the quality of education, student engagement, the health and safety of children, and a better tone in school-community relations.

The model of Public Engagement, developed by the Ottawa-based Public Policy Forum (PPF), might well serve as that vehicle to generate better, community-based solutions, rendering quasi-judicial school accommodation reviews essentially obsolete. Future planning for schooling would then be focused on rural and urban revitalization instead of on lopping-off small schools and abandoning school communities. The PPF Public Engagement model, favoured by the Nova Scotia Small Schools Initiative, starts by taking a broader lens and breaking out of the old mould that previously constrained public policy making within the educational system.  

The PPF model passes the public sniff test. First, are we asking the right question – and are we allowing participants to re-frame the fundamental question?  And secondly, what are the participants prepared to do, working in partnership with government authorities, to demonstrate ownership of the community-based solutions?

Readily available options like the Annapolis Valley Regional School Board’s Successful Schools for Successful Students planning process, implemented from September 2008 until 2012, will be found significantly wanting.While it provides a longer period of initial consultation, the AVRSB model still adheres to the “hidden agenda” of the school facilities planners, including the plan to advance “grade re-configuration” (P to 8, 9 to 12), moving kids from smaller to bigger schools. Buried in the rather woolly rationale was a telling line that the whole scheme was explicitly designed to “ rationalize the way the educational program would be delivered into the future. “  

Significant changes are afoot in many Canadian public bodies, private businesses, and community organizations seeking to build public support for major initiatives by involving the public in more meaningful ways in the making of a wider range of decisions. 

The Halifax Public Libraries, for example, has taken the lead in demonstrating a much better approach to promoting genuine public engagement. The 2011-12 public engagement sessions on the Central Library, run by Tim Merry, co-founder of the Art of Hosting movement, utilized the ‘World Cafe’ discussion group format, fully evolved with live streaming, targeted focus groups, public surveys, and a ‘Mind Map’ graffiti wall.  That same model was adopted in the second round of public meetings over the controversial Nova Convention Centre, and now by other consultation-wise groups in Pictou County, Alberta, and Washington, DC.

Conducting public hearings, as well as school board meetings, in very traditional ‘Teacher Knows Best’ mode is alienating parents and taxpayers. Yet, there is little evidence, so far, of a willingness, at the board level, to make the necessary changes.

True public engagement cannot, and will not, result from such to-down approaches, especially with today’s skeptical public.  Past experiences, information overload, social uncertainty, and the nature of technology are all changing the way responsible public bodies interact with their constituencies.  Tim Merry calls it “a paradigm shift from command and control to participatory leadership.”  Dominance by school facilities planners is coming to an end, and we need a process to generate community-based solutions “none of us could create alone.”  

Whether it’s the City of Kingston,  the historic Connaught School of Regina, or Nova Scotia’s rural schools, the adversarial School Review Process needs to be permanently put on ice and supplanted with a fairer, more community-based process designed to generate more viable long-term solutions.

With the School Review Process under fire and on the rocks, what comes next? How can education authorities restore public trust and still manage to effectively plan for the future?  What would work better for schools and communities in the best interests of our children?

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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.

PetitePlusImageGillSomething 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?

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Canadian children are suffering from a near epidemic of inactivity that is now reflected in rising obesity rates. Physical inactivity, online adolescence, and poor eating habits have now also been linked to weaker academic performance. A ground breaking series, Fit to Learn, in The Globe and Mail (May 23-29, 2012) put the issue of children’s health squarely on the public agenda.  The dire state of Physical Education programs, alarming rates of child obesity, the ineffectiveness of Healthy Schools policies, and report card BMI fitness grades were all aired out in the series. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/education/war-on-child-obesity-out-of-the-cafeteria-and-onto-the-playground/article4209692/

What came out of the series of in-depth reports?  An Editorial entitled “Obesity obsession,‘ (29 May 2012) that offered a sobering message to Healthy Schools crusaders in Canada’s provincial education systems.  After noting that the schools had “enough on their plates,” the Editors claimed that “the emphasis on the school’s role is overdone.”  Many schools were already doing a great deal, but “the role of the schools is not to perfect children.” In short, what the schools teach has to be reinforced at home.


A local battle over a Cake Walk fundraiser, sparked by Halifax-area mother Pamela Lovelace, erupted in early June when the Education Department  issued a new set of guidelines which prohibited a traditional Maritime tradition of  parent association “cake walks” in which calorie-laden cakes are raffled-off to raise money. Her little protest generated quite a groundswell of support, all focused on resistance to Nova Scotia’s school nutrition policy.  Eventually, Minister of Education Ramona Jennex was forced to backtrack in an attempt to calm the waters.  http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/parenting/the-fight-to-keep-cake-in-the-classroom/article4240139/

With the controversy still swirling, Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter ( June 7, 2012) announced Thrive! , a glitzy $2 million Healthy Living initiative, focusing on combating child obesity, introducing compulsory PE classes, more nutrition programs, and a war on junk food.  http://thechronicleherald.mobi/novascotia/104665-ns-to-spend-2-million-to-fight-childhood-obesity  That initiative came on the heals of an earlier Ontario initiative in September 2011 which clamped down on unhealthy foods and beverages, while allowing up to 10 school days where students can hold pizza sales and even chocolate bar drives.

Fighting child obesity is a worthy cause, but most of the school-based initiatives are merely more of the same, albeit better funded and more targeted than the first wave of Healthy Schools policy activity some five or six years ago. If there is a glimmer of hope for this to work, it will take a larger project aimed at building healthier communities rather than another well-intended effort seeking to impose a new layer of provincial regulation, from cradle to grave.

Nova Scotia’s Thrive! initiative is one of the first to recognize that only a province-wide health and wellness project will make any dent in the problem.  It was announced by the Premier, along with Health Nova Scotia and four provincial departments, in a show of force.   It was mounted using an innovative strategy known as “collective impact” recognizing that no government initiative stands any chance of succeeding unless it is inter-departmental and forges new alliances. http://www.ssireview.org/pdf/2011_WI_Feature_Kania.pdf

The Nova Scotia Healthy Living project is unique in another respect — it is beginning to connect the dots.  No provincial initiative to combat child obesity will work unless it addresses the underlying structural problems, including the brute logic of school consolidation and the siting of schools farther and farther away from children and neighbourhood communities.

Designing and building communities for active healthy living will require a seismic shift in school planning and the siting of schools.  Ten years ago, Noreen C. MacDonald’s study of Active Transportation to School for U.S. students (1969-2001) reported that the number of students walking to school had declined from 40.7% to 12.9 %.  http://dot.ga.gov/localgovernment/FundingPrograms/srts/Documents/news/Trends_Among_US_School_Children.pdf

School siting by education facilities planners has been identified as a major contributing factor.  A ground breaking U.S. EPA study in October 2003, Travel and Environmental Implications of School Siting, identified planning of schools and growing walking distances as a critical strategic issue, with educational, environmental and health implications, as well as financial ones, for the future of communities.  Since 1945, the EPA reported that the number of American public schools had declined by 70 per cent while average school size grew fivefold, from 127 to 653. “School proximity matters,” the report claimed, and bigger schools meant fwer kids walking and longer bus rides, all with serious impacts on air emissions and physical health.  It strongly recommended that travel time to school be elevated to a higher level in state and district school planning.

Today’s child obesity epidemic is shining new light on the way communities are designed and the importance of promoting “active living among children.”  Since the advent of the Internet and video games, kids spend, in the words of Nova Scotia’s CMOH, Dr. Robert Strang,  “too much time sitting” before, during, and after school hours.  “A walkable neighbourhood” is fast becoming the most desirable community for children as well as adults because it encourages everyone to “walk or bike” from home to school to workplace.  Oddly enough, it may take a looming health crisis to restore small community schools to their rightful place in public education and to end those long bus rides to school. “Big box schools, ” Dr. Strang and others are saying, “are unhealthy places.”

What can be done to combat the rise of child obesity among Canadian children and teens?  Are Healthy Schools policies and banning junk food at lunchtime  part of the problem — or the solution?  Will it take a looming public health crisis among today’s younger generation to snap provincial politicians and school board administrators out of their daze?  When will education policy makers wake up to the long-term  impact of school consolidation and long bus rides on children, adults, and community life?

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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?

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