Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Voting with their feet

This is a question that's come to me a few times in recent weeks reading coverage of some ongoing school-closure reviews-- particularly the high school review being undertaken by the Grand Erie DSB for its secondary schools in Norfolk County.
Port Dover Composite is under the gun as the candidate for closure at this stage of the review. To put things into some perspective from afar, the GEDSB kept Delhi District open a few years back, voting to tear down a vacant wing and invest somewhere in the neighbourhood of $4 million on that project and some renos to the school. The school benefited when Norwich DHS, in the Thames Valley DSB, closed in 2009 and the largest group of students to be dispersed chose to start attending Delhi DSS.
The review was highlighted in my recent tab roundup, with reporting coming mainly from my colleagues at the Simcoe Reformer. The paper has posted a few more articles since I wrote that roundup-- one accusing the board of sabotaging PDCS, one on a meeting held at the school and one questioning whether the data being presented to the review committee is flawed. On the latter, the article is a bit confusing since it has the municipality acknowledging that most of the new housing has gone to older populations (who don't have school-aged kids). It seems as though the municipality's growth stats don't match the board's because it's comparing two different demographics.
From the first article:
They are also angry that the GEDSB pays for one-way busing of Port Dover students to Simcoe Composite School.
Because of this unique busing arrangement, 117 secondary students in the PDCS catchment area attend high school out of town. Were they forced to attend classes in their home town, the number of high-school students at PDCS would rise to 402, well within the board's goal of 75% capacity.
"There has been 25 years of the board surreptitiously putting nail after nail into this school," Marg Ryerse said to loud cheers in the packed gymnasium at PDCS. "As taxpayers in Port Dover we should be outraged. Port Doverites pay some of the heftiest taxes in Norfolk County. Port Dover is being shortchanged here. The board is literally driving our children away. Why is this being allowed to happen?"
GEDSB has PDCS under the microscope because there are 2,200 vacant pupil places at Norfolk's five public high schools.
This is a critique that has come up in this board and others before. Boards providing transportation from one area of the district to another that local advocates feel is overly detrimental to the local high school. I know that the GEDSB does this in Delhi, where if a student wants to access a senior-level course and is unable to (or doesn't want to wait until there's a critical mass at the school to have it offered), they are given busing to a school in Simcoe.
The critique is similar with PDCS, where students are taking advantage of the free busing.
This can be somewhat of a catch-22 for a school board. It has an obligation to serve all students through all pathways (open, workplace, college, university, academic, locally developed, etc.) regardless of what geographic area of the district their families choose as home. It has to do this within a finite amount of funding. Boards in southern Ontario can be very creative in their approaches, such as offering certain credits every other year, combining grades into one classroom, combining levels into one classroom, offering e-learning and even putting some tele/video conferencing solutions into place. At the end of the day, each of those solutions or all of them are not the solution for every student.
What can sometimes happen (and did in Norwich to some extent, according to data presented in 2004-05), is that the student body tends to sign up for the courses that are offered, regardless if that's the most appropriate course. In this example, the data showed more students taking academic and university level courses -- because that's what could be offered -- than necessarily students heading down that pathway post-grad.
Families tend to vote with their feet. If a course isn't being offered in their home school, or isn't being offered in the format they want or need and they can do so, they'll travel to get it. When you reach a critical mass of people travelling from point A to B, when do you start transporting the students in that direction? Never?
Even a 400-student school can be difficult to time table for every option.
Rather than condemning the board for this situation, I think a far more interesting question would be to ask (in this case) the almost 200 students who take advantage of the transportation why they've done so. The answers could be very, very instructional and illuminating to the committee and the school board.
It's a question that's never asked. Even a few years ago in the midst of Niagara District Secondary School stuff where census stats shows 700 high school-aged students in the catchment area and fewer than half choosing NDSS, no one asked why the other students voted with their feet.


Mike Marini said...

Hi Hugo, thanks for commenting on the PDCS situation!

I'm a resident, business owner, health professional and parent of a PDCS student, so I have a lot at stake in the debate over closing PDCS

(Most of) the people advocating to keep PDCS open are not crazy, they know that small schools provide a better educational environment for their kids, and once this opportunity is lost, it will never return.

The REAL frustration of the parents at PDCS is the dishonesty of the GEDSB. For many years, the GEDSB has worked to deliberately undermine the ability of PDCS to be a viable school.

From witholding scheduled upgrades to refusing to order textbooks to removing critical technology, to failing to provide qualified teachers for key subject areas to transferring motivated administrators, to denial of e-learning access, to removal of athletic and extracurricular activities, to cancellation of the international student program to severing the relationship with the Lighthouse Festival Theatre, to
soliciting students for Simcoe inside PDCS's catchment area, to "courtesy busing" for kids to Simcoe, to continual "leaks" of their intention to close PDCS even before the ARC process has begun, the GEDSB has
persistently and energetically interfered with the viability and vitality of PDCS

The reality is that Port Dover is the fastest growing region of Norfolk and NOT JUST FOR SENIORS, the entire workforce of the nearby industrial park will be replaced over the next 5-10 years with young workers who will bring young families. The County's own EcoDev manager pointed out the inaccuracy
of the Boards projections pretty well at the ARC meeting.

As for why parents vote with their feet...that's a really good question...and as a matter of fact
we did ask it.

Here are the reasons that kids from Dover go to Simcoe high schools:
- religious education
- Holy Trinity has new, cool stuff
- uniforms make HT look like an
elite "Private School"
- equipment such as science labs,
AV material and computers have
been allowed to deteriorate or
are not even available
- PDCS cannot offer key basic
courses and GEDSB will not do
their job and enable e-learning
- Parents have been told that PDCS
is closing and they don't want
their kids to switch schools in

Many parents expressed frustration at having to send their kids out of town to school but felt that they had no choice

Dover kids that go to Simcoe often can't play sports, attend clubs or have part-time jobs, all parts of a healthy high school experience

Ironically, the GEDSB assumes that PDCS students will automagically go to SCS but the reality is, that if SCS was a better school than PDCS, the kids would already be going there.

At the gatherings prior to the ARC meetings, there was a great deal of interest in enrolling the vast majority of the PDCS student body in the Separate School system and
voting with THEIR feet about how they feel that the GEDSB has let them down

Education Reporter said...


Thanks for the comment.
I don't defend school board decisions, but hope to try and provide some thoughts-- things the boards do a poor job of explaining.

Some of the items you list as detrimental to PDCS are challenges boards face when looking to the system as a whole. There are difficult decisions to make when all schools need resources and boards are put in the position of recommending supplies, materials, upgrades, etc. that benefit the largest number of students. Continuing to support small schools with a fixed (and shrinking) funding base forces these decisions. They can also be hamstrung by collective agreements that limit the ability to post a teacher in a specialist subject to teach a single course in one school location. You may get the teacher for specialist course A, but that person then is teaching other courses outside their specialty area.

My guess, having seen the municipal projection vs. school board projection battle play out in the past, is that any municipal projection or employment-land growth usually fails to take into account commuting and the demographics of smaller families. This means that anticipated growth rarely is able to make up for existing vacancies, never mind the state of a school's population when the growth in school-aged children starts to materialize in a significant way.


Mike Marini said...

Hi Hugo!

Thanks for the thoughtful comments on the issue... as parents, we're not always very calm (or polite) when we talk about our kids' education...

I think that you make a good point about bad communication being at the root of much of this conflict

As I said, the families involved aren't trying to be selfish, the last thing that they want is for their kid's education to come at the expense of someone else's

If the numbers TRULY showed that PDCS was a burden to the other Norfolk schools, and that the board was spending more per student than other schools to keep it open, then we probably wouldn't be seeing this process happen...

We just wish that the GEDSB would put all the cards on the table so that everyone could see whether the argument made sense or not.

(for instance, the board won't reveal the figures for budgeted vs actual expenditures per school)

The ARC process is SUPPOSED to be about dialogue and solution finding
(which the parents and staff have put a great deal of effort into)

But as the documents leaked at the last meeting indicated, the Board made a decision two years ago to close PDCS and Waterford, and the ARC process is just public relations.

It would be MOST helpful as you say for the Board to explain its position more clearly...otherwise,
people at this end react (predictably) with suspicion

Now, if only GEDSB had someone like YOU who was able to communicate effectively, perhaps the situation wouldn't need to escalate to the pitchfork and torches stage

Education Reporter said...

Thanks again Mike-- particularly that last line. Although I do quite enjoy the work I do now on this blog and the stuff I get paid to do covering city hall in Brantford.

The committee should keep pushing for information. The board must respond to committee requests and the committee has to finalize a report to trustees before the process can move into the next stage.

I've found many board employees do thoughtful consideration of things before these recommendations come forward. Often though, their coworkers (or they themselves) just do a poor job explaining that rationale to the public without getting into edubabble or talking to us like we're in kindergarten.

I don't think there are board administrators out there revelling in closure.


Anonymous said...

There is no such thing as a catchment boundary for PDCS. The GEDSB Transportation Department has circumvented the Courtesy Busing Policy has been sending students to alternative secondary schools in order to subsidize student enrolment at the expense of keeping PDCS educationally viable.

The myth is perpetuated by Senior Administration, and will continue to do so before the Board of Trustees, PDCS is a victim of declining enrolment. Everyone knows this is "bunk". Despite the good intentions of ARC and the PDCS community, Senior Administration has a stacked deck in that it controls the transportation policy, and gerrymanders statistical information to provide the illustion PDCS does not have the program to provide students.

Does anyone really believe that the Board or Senior Administration would allow all those students being redirected from the PDCS catchment boundary to alternative schools to be reassigned to the school were they rightfully belong.
Courtesy Busing does not exist in the PDCS catchment area as has been the fundamental belief for the past ten or more years. Students are being Board Directed without any real criteria for doing so - except of course to shore up the enrolment figures of the other schools in Norfolk.

Brian Potter

Education Reporter said...


Thanks for the comment.
The entire GEDSB is a declining enrolment board, so I do have to take exception with your statement that declining enrolment at PDCS is bunk. Unless there was an unknown baby boom in that part of Norfolk 10-15 years ago, the area is experiencing the same demographic trends as every other part of small-town and rural Ontario.

I have a feeling even if the board 'forced' every eligible student to attend PDCS (which per the education act it cannot), and all of them chose to follow that direction, it would be a temporary reprieve at best. Within five to 10 years the population would again be at or near its current levels. The answer to that could be found today by looking at enrolments in PDCS feeder schools.