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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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On March 22, 2012, Nova Scotia declared provincial war on cyberbullying and bullying in and around the schools. Education Minister Ramona Jennex released a meticulously detailed 100-page report, written by Halifax law professor Wayne MacKay and based upon a full year of study and public consultation.  With great fanfare, she used the opportunity to launch an initiative to curb “an insidious and serious problem facing not only schools but today’s society.” 

MacKay, a renowned constitutional law specialist, delivered a far-reaching report with 85 different recommendations, http://cyberbullying.novascotia.ca/covering the challenges of fostering community dialogue, defining the problem, closing the data collection gap, reforming human rights law, initiating preventive programs, the limits of deterrent discipline, and educating a diverse public in “digital literacy.”

The Cyberbulling Task Force report is entitled There’s No App for That, but, for all the public input, it reflects the outlook and perspectives of its principal author.  Professor MacKay is a strong proponent of “restorative justice” and one of Canada’s staunchest defenders of “inclusion policy” in schools. That explains why he flatly rejects “zero tolerance” approaches to curbing bullying and cyberbullying. It also explains why “anti-bullying” strategies  will now be grafted onto “inclusive education” programming and to be included in Faculty of Education teacher training degree programs.

“Cyberbullying adds a new dimension to bullying,” MacKay contends. ” Zero-tolerance policies, such as those attempted in the Toronto school boards in the 1990s, do not work.”

Even though over 85% of Canadians, in a recent opinion poll, favoured making cyberbullying a criminal offense, MacKay begs to differ. He recommends beefing-up provincial human rights codes and school board policies rather than going the criminal law route.  “In the courts, “ he said, it’s difficult to ‘prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.’”

MacKay was heavily influenced by Toronto lawyer Eric Roher’s research and a recent British Columbia test case where a school board was found negligent for failing “to exercise the duty to provide preventive education.”  http://www.ctf-fce.ca/Documents/Priorities/EN/cyberbullying/CyberFacebook.pdf  “School boards, “ he told Open File Halifax, “get excited when I talk about this.”  That’s what is behind his proposed amendments to the Education Act and regulations.

While MacKay’s report was greeted with celebratory responses, it will spark much debate over some of its more contentious recommendations. Banning cell phones and digital devices in classrooms, even on a short-term basis, proved to be “dead on arrival” with high school students.  Seventeen-year-old Allison Taylor of Sir John A. Macdonald High School, featured on the cover of the report, reacted swiftly, saying that banning them “simply won’t work.”  http://halifax.openfile.ca/halifax/text/cyberbullying-report-calls-p-12-pilot-ban-cell-phones-and-digital-divices

MacKay’s report does provide some shocking evidence of how widespread teen bullying is, in all its forms.  He cites Alberta teacher Bill Belsey’s figures from data gathered at http://www.bullying.org.  In December 2011, Bill testified before a Senate Committee that there are 252,000 cases of bullying per month in Canadian high schools. Doing some quick calculations, that would amount to some 6,000 incidents each month in a rather thinly populated province like Nova Scotia.

The report unmasks how unprepared Nova Scotia was to respond to cyberbullying in schools or anywhere else. His first six recommendations all speak to the urgent need to take –off the blinkers by identifying, documenting and addressing bullying as well as cyberbullying. For an Education Department looking to reduce paperwork, this will not necessarily be welcomed by teachers.

Hiring an Anti-Bullying Co-ordinator (ABC) and setting-up a new ABC Office is pro-active, but – whatever its intentions — adds another layer to the education bureaucracy.  If the focus is on prevention, it’s hard to see why so much of the report deals with identifying, documenting, reporting, and assessing complaints – and overseeing the new and extensive school board compliance requirements.

Nova Scotia’s Cyberbullying commissioner has identified “the insidious problem” and succeeds in clarifying that “cyberbullying is simply a new dimension of bullying.”  His report also makes a valiant effort, using the public education platform, to promote a “whole of government” approach to a serious societal problem.

What can be done in Canadian provincial education systems to curb the spread of cyberbullying?  Should a ban on cellphones and digital devices in the classroom be part of that strategy?  What are the limits of preventative education in schools?  In attempting to deter cyberbullying, are we creating another layer of legislation, regulations, and bureaucracy?  Most importantly, should the chronic perpetrators be subject to criminal action or treated to another round of restorative justice?

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