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Archive for the ‘Small Schools Initiatives’ Category

The annual February and March ‘School Closure Madness’ is upon us generating considerable heat amid the winter deep freeze.  School closures are dominating the local educational world in many rural and inner city school communities beset by declining student enrollments.  Whether it’s rural southern and central Ontario, the suburban GTA Region, or the villages of Prince Edward Island, parents, families and community members are fully engaged in popular movements resisting further centralization and consolidation or standing up for threatened towns, villages and neighbourhoods.

ontarioschoolclosuresrallyoct16A group representing concerned citizens from across Ontario, the Ontario Alliance Against School Closures (OAASC), is  now calling on the Ministry of Education to immediately halt school closures and scrap the current wave of school consolidation. .In its October 2016 open letter to Education Minister Mitzie Hunter, the OAASC claimed that a recently revised PARG (Pupil Accommodation Review Guideline) is flawed and must be rewritten and proposed that 1) ARC reviews be immediately suspended until a democratic guideline is in place; 2) the Government of Ontario immediately put a moratorium on school closures; and 3) the Government commission a study to determine the effects of extensive school closures on the health of affected children and their communities.

One of OAASC’s leaders, Susan MacKenzie, expressed alarm at the scope of the latest school consolidation wave threatening to shutter some 600 schools, 1 in every eight schools across Ontario, seeking to save up to $1-billion spent to maintain reportedly ‘half-full’ school buildings. Back in March 2016, with the rewriting of the PARG,  MacKenzie claimed “communities lost a significant voice at the table giving school boards the freedom to ram these closures through without resistance.” “Community schools are under siege, carried by this tidal wave of closures across the province,” she added.” The revised guideline has pitted the province and school boards against our communities.”

Five schools on Prince Edward Island are now under review for closure. Since the adoption of the revised P.E.I. School Change policy in September 2016, school boards are gone and school closures have continued under a new set of legalistic rules that formalize a process pitting the Public Schools Branch against the communities they attempt to serve.

georgetownsossignAll 56 schools on the Island have been reviewed and the consolidation plan proposes to rezone or close the schools affecting 2,500 students, 700 of whom are rural children and teens. A coalition to Save Island Schools has emerged and prominent Islanders like former Liberal Cabinet member Alan Buchanan are now calling for a complete review of the grueling, divisive process and proposing constructive alternatives. Two schools on Eastern PEI, Belfast Consolidated School and Georgetown Elementary School, have responded by calling for a pause in the closure process so they can embark on a school-centred community revitalization initiative.

Two of Ontario’s leading authorities, Bill Irwin of Huron University College and Mark Seasons at the Waterloo University School of Planning, are challenging the basic financial efficiency assumptions behind school closures and essentially overlooking the social and educational costs.  Since 2012, Irwin and Seasons have been aggregating research in support of small schools and urging school authorities to embrace best practices in community planning and public engagement.  Much like my own book, Vanishing Schools, Threatened Communities (2011), their work demonstrates the serious and lasting impacts of closures, including the depletion of local financial, social and human capital.

Provincial education ministers have the authority to declare a Moratorium on the School Review process, an option exercised in April 2013 by then N.S. Education Minister Ramona Jennex. The pretext then was to secure sufficient time to assess the fairness of the former process and to consider the merits of a new alternative – community hub schools.  

A Schools at the Centre community development strategy  would be far superior to the “old school” model of school consolidation. . It’s time for Education Ministers and their Departments to take the lead in shifting the terms of engagement from “threatened closures” to community-based, school-centred, rural economic and social development.

saveislandschoolsgeorgetownchainThe Georgetown Conferences on Rural Renewal (October 2013 and June 2016) generated high expectations.  Hundreds of delegates  embraced the idea that you can have viable small rural schools run on an economically efficient basis and tapping into the potential of local social innovation and digitally networked local schools. Stopping the consolidation express train in PEI and elsewhere in rural Canada would allow the time to develop a comprehensive Rural Economic Development Strategy instead of simply closing schools and abandoning more rural communities.

Transforming small schools into viable, lively community hubs and incubators for social enterprise is the way of the near future.  Some small, under-enrolled schools will continue to close, but let’s hope it’s the right ones. Time will tell whether the “Old School” model of school consolidation is superceded by a new approach focusing on school-centred community revitalization.

What’s driving the relentless movement to consolidate small schools and regionalize K-12 education services? Do claims of economic efficiency or economies of scale hold any water, when all costs are considered over a five year time horizon? What’s standing in the way of community-wide planning and the re-purposing of community hub schools?  Who will be the first community to succeed in creating a fully evolved, viable and sustainable community hub school? 

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The famous German sociologist Max Weber’s conception of the “iron cage” of rationality and bureaucracy has proven not only durable, but applicable to the changing nature of modern bureaucratic education systems. In its original form, it was applied broadly by Weber to explain the tyranny of rationalization in the modern transformation of social life, particularly in Western capitalist societies. The “iron cage,” in his view, trapped individuals in systems purely driven by teleological efficiency, rational calculation, and control. Weber’s most brilliant insight was seeing, into the future, the potential “bureaucratization” of the social order into “the polar night of icy darkness.”

BureaucracyCageThe original German term was stahlhartes Gehäuse and  it morphed into”iron cage,” in 1930 with the appearance of Talcott Parson’s translation of Weber’s classic, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. More recently, sociologists have interpreted the term a little differently as meaning “shell as hard as steel.”  Whatever the precise meaning, its utility in assessing school systems will be readily apparent to anyone attempting to affect change or to promote community-driven initiatives in the modern and post-modern bureaucratic education state.

Weber’s “iron cage” concept is so broad that it almost invites education reformers to pour whatever they want into the theoretical framework. Prominent Canadian education thinkers, most notably George Martell, have appropriated Weber’s concept and applied it in their analysis of schooling in our global capitalist world.  Moving beyond such ideologically-laden conceptions, Martell and his colleague David Clandfield have provided a very thoughtful critique of the school system’s stubborn and persistent resistance since the 1980s to true “community schools.”

In their Summer 2010 Special issue of Our Schools/Our Selves, they see the demand for Community Schools as a manifestation of popular, progressive impulses provided that they “stay true” to their essential democratic principles.  True community schools, operating as genuine two-way community hubs, they argue, can advance “really useful” learning and community development.

That vision has taken root in Nova Scotia over the past three years, incited by Dr. David Clandfield’s advocacy and nurtured by a determined  provincial parent advocacy group, the Nova Scotia Small Schools Initiative. Every step of the way, the Nova Scotia community school advocates have confronted and tangled with the provincial and school board mutations of the “iron cage.”

Three Nova Scotia school communities spent the past two years developing Hub School proposals and recently suffered a calamitous fate.  All three innovative community school development projects were crushed like a bug on June 10 at the Chignecto-Central Regional School Board meeting in Truro, effectively abandoning three more small villages, Maitland, River John and Wentworth. Confronted with a senior staff report recommending “rejection,” the sixteen elected school board members made their fateful choice – management priorities driven by strict bureaucratic rules trumped community interests, once again.

Properly serving children, families and communities does not figure in such calculations. While the new School Review process, adopted in June 2014, is designed to be broader and more community-based, the provincial Hub regulations, written entirely by educrats, conspire against such local innovations. It is, regrettably, just the latest example of the workings and inner dynamics of what is known as the “iron cage” of education.

EdBureaucracyGraphicOf all the public bureaucratic systems, education is perhaps the most puzzling. Provincial authorities and school boards all purport to put “children first,” but do not really operate that way. Advocating actively for your children, fighting for your child’s school or questioning board student services policies is considered being ‘disruptive’ or, even worse, ‘overly emotional.’ Big stakes negotiations with teachers over salaries, class composition, and instructional days are, we are told, also none of our business.

The logic of the iron cage even leads elected board members to accept the bureaucratic mentality. “We only responsible for running schools,” as one Chignecto-Central RSB member stated, “we are not in the business of saving communities.”

Eighteen months ago, Robert Fowler’s February 2014 Nova Scotia School Review report exposed the”iron cage” and attempted to change the whole dynamic by recommending a community-based school planning and development process. If Fowler’s strategic approach had been followed in Truro, one or two of the Hub School proposals would have secured a green light and gone some distance towards winning back damaged public trust in those communities.

Myopic educational thinking is next-to-impossible to stamp out. Closing schools, the Chignecto-Central administration now claims, saves money and preserves teaching jobs. School librarians, we are assured, will survive because schools and villages are abandoned in Maitland, River John and Wentworth. That’s a complete fabrication designed only to counter the political fallout. North American research shows that consolidations rarely save any taxpayer’s money in the long run. The three Hub School groups, in their submissions, not only pointed out the limited immediate savings achieved through those closures, but provided sound and viable plans with some modest revenue generating potential.

Studying how educational bureaucracies function provides a window on what happens and why in the world of state education. Disrupting the status quo would mean confronting these deeply concealed educational realities and busting down the bureaucratic silos – for the sake of children, families and communities.

Does Max Weber’s conception of the “iron cage” still have utility in explaining the impulses and dynamics of educational bureaucracies? Why do true community school initiatives encounter such resistance at all levels of many school systems? What can be learned from the fate of local Community Hub School projects championed by the Nova Scotia Small Schools Initiative? What might work in breaking down the silos and opening the door to more local projects of genuine social enterprise and educational innovation?

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Smaller communities in Ontario are accustomed to receiving the Queen’s Park ‘shock treatment.’ It happened again on January 28, 2015 when Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals stated that $1 billion out of the $22.5 billion education budget could be saved by “closing about 600 half-empty schools.” A day later the Minister backtracked, saying that her primary concern was underutilized Toronto schools, not those in rural or remote communities.

SavingSchoolsParrySound The whole Accommodation Review Committee (ARC) process, as school closure exercises are now called, has been under fire in central Ontario ever since Toronto consultant Margaret Wilson released her September 2013 independent report rapping the knuckles of the Near North District School Board (NNDSB) for its “lack of public transparency” in the forced consolidation of three North Bay elementary schools.

A more recent provincial proposal to shorten the ARC process also aroused concerns for local school board trustees in North Bay and elsewhere. It proposed to give municipal governments a bigger role, suggesting “a shift away from consideration (of the) impact of school closures” on “community well-being and the local economy” toward “a more exclusive focus on student achievement.”

Veteran NNDSB trustee, Al Bottomley, sees the ARC reform proposal as a “dangerous” initiative. “It seems that the government wants to close schools at all cost,” he said. “Kids do better in small schools,” Bottomley added. “Putting them in one school is not going to benefit the kids. They’ll be so tired, they won’t be able to do anything. The buses might be going 15 to 20 or 30 kilometres more. That’s ridiculous. Student achievement is something they won’t get.”

The bigger question is whether closing small schools and moving students to regional education centres saves any education dollars at all. School planners continue to base closure recommendations on predicted “economies of scale.” Such claims are highly suspect, according to American researcher Barbara Kent Lawrence, if and when you factor-in the operating costs per square foot, the actual cost per graduate, the added cost of busing students, and the often inflated costs of new school construction.

School capital funding decisions can also leave smaller towns and villages out in the cold. In the case of Mattawa, a town of 2,100 near North Bay, North Bay Nipissing News Editor Rob Learn recently laid bare what can happen. In mid-December, he made public the contents of a Ministry of Education – NNDSB communications trail showing how between 2010 and 2013 that small town lost out on its promised school funding, not just now but into the future.

Without any public disclosure, and ignoring public pleas from Mattawa Mayor Dean Backer, a 2010 $1 million grant commitment earmarked for F.J. McElligott Secondary School was quietly diverted from the town and shifted to fund a North Bay school re-build to turn it from an intermediate school to a K to 6 facility.

The Mattawa school controversy brought into sharp relief what NNDSB Chair David Thompson recently conceded was a “shell game.” Capital grants for Mattawa were diverted to North Bay, then topped-up with unspent money from Full Day Kindergarten capital grants, allocating a total of $1.5 million to Silver Birches Elementary School which opened in September of 2014.

The nub of the whole matter is the spectre of school closures shifting even more students out of their home communities, down the highway to larger regional population centres. Proposed changes to the ARC school closure process will only worsen that problem.

SaveRuralSchoolSignSmall school advocates have countered Sandals and the education officials at Queen’s Park with a “community building” solution. Instead of closing the remaining rural and remote schools, the proposed plan is to transform underutilized schools into what Dr. David Clandfield terms “community hub schools.”

The Hub School model, now authorized in Nova Scotia regulations, opens the door to the potential for school and community revitalization. Under such a model, the adversarial, divisive closure processes become community planning exercises designed forge community partnerships and re-purpose the underutilized space without displacing the students and teachers.

Closing schools is a losing proposition for much of small town and rural Ontario. It’s time to explore a third option with better prospects. Stop the closures and consider more innovative solutions, starting with “hubification” and the sharing of school space.

Provincial and district education authorities must commit in a big way to school renovation rather than current ‘tear down’ and relocate approaches. Then let’s empower school boards to hire local business development officers to initiate community partnerships, tap into alternative funding sources, and rent out school space to local organizations from child care and seniors groups to social enterprises and performing arts organizations.

Rebuilding struggling communities with emptying schools sure beats tearing them down and “community hub schools” could well give them a new lease on life.  The fundamental question is: What’s standing in the way of proceeding with such community-based, “dollars & sense” alternatives to closing schools and abandoning smaller communities?

An earlier version of this Commentary produced for the Northern Policy Institute appeared in the Parry Sound North Star.

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Sitting in the dimly lit, bunker-like Conference Room on a sunny Saturday afternoon in Canada’s last surviving Wandlyn Inn was a little depressing. Listening to a veteran Nova Scotia School Superintendent explain — with clinical precision– the new Hub School Model regulations released in July 2014 was almost too much to bear. The session title gave it all away: “The Operation, Opportunities and Challenges of the Community Hub Model.”  A funny thing has happened to an exciting idea on its way to implementation.

NSSSILogoSmall school activist Kate Oland, a veteran of several Cape Breton school closure battles, was rendered virtually numb. After fighting to save her Middle River School, co-founding the Nova Scotia Small School Initiative, celebrating the April 3, 2013 school closure moratorium, and welcoming the Hub School guidelines, it had all come down to this: the Superintendent in charge of advancing the project still didn’t seem to “get it”: open the school doors to the community and let social innovation in.

Community hub projects come alive with proactive leadership and the scent of social innovation.The founder of Toronto’s Centre of Social Innovation, Tonya Surman, speaking in Sydney, Cape Breton in April 2014, was right on the mark. “You’ve got to be able to dream about what’s possible, ” and she added “social change takes time.”

NewDawnErikaSheaA “New Dawn’ arrived for Holy Angels Academy in Sydney, Cape Breton, but three years after its closure as a public school. Today it’s a thriving Centre for Social Innovation hosting a lively mix of 20 commercial and non-profit enterprises.

That transformation, spearheaded by Rankin MacSween’s New Dawn Enterprises Limited, should be on the curriculum for the training of School Superintendents. It’s time to embrace economic renewal and social enterprise, particularly in a struggling economic province like Nova Scotia.  Founded in 1976 initially as a community development fund to combat plant and mine closures, New Dawn is now a beacon of light for faltering communities on the verge of losing their schools.

With the adoption of the School Hub regulations, the Nova Scotia Education Department is coaxing school boards into being more proactive in transforming emptying schools into shared use facilities and potentially revenue generating operations.

The Hub School guidelines, in the hands of reluctant administrators, may threaten to extinguish community spirit and enterprise. Developed by a faceless team of school administrators, it treats Hub School proposals as “business case briefs” and guides proponents through a virtual “obstacle course” of new approval rules. Serving existing students should come first, but why is the “protection of property” so prominent in the regulations?

Three Nova Scotia community-school groups in River John, Maitland, and Wentworth are fighting to save their schools and fully committed to supporting the “Hubification” process. Economic and social innovation thrives when it is welcomed, as in the case of the New Dawn success in Sydney. It perishes on sterile ground marked off like the hurdles on a high school track field.

Economic renewal and social innovation are possible under the right conditions. What’s the secret to unlocking Social Innovation and revitalizing our schools? What has happened to the Nova Scotia Community Hub School Model on its way to implementation? Is it still possible for small school advocates to clear the latest hurdles and transform schools into true community hubs?

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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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