Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The ARC challenge

Getting back to one of the points from the Declining Enrolment Working Group report, several of the 21 recommendations focused on the Accommodation Review Committee (ARC) process, mandated by Ontario when new pupil accommodation and review guidelines were released in October 2006.
The working group states the ARCs created by boards to seek community input on closures and consolidations of schools work, but could be doing so much better. The recommendations say ARCs do a poor job of allowing the board to explain to the community why its staff members believe closure / consolidation could provide students with the best learning environments. They present committee members (and the public, hopefully) with arcane templates full of numbers (these are actually a treasure-trove of information, but you almost need a PhD in edu-speak and ministry jargon and acronyms to understand them) that are often forgotten and left in the dust.
Many ARCs turn communities against each other, only amplifying and providing a bigger megaphone to emotional pleas from former students, parents and current students. Worse, they have been leaving communities with the impression that an ARC's report to trustees contains recommendations they must follow-- when in fact, ARCs advise trustees and reflect community opinion on staff recommendations. The dirty work of making the tough decisions is left to (as it should) trustees-- who would ultimately face the wrath of the voters come November 2010.
Take this example. Five schools, five communities -- Midland, Penetanguishene, Collingwood, Stayner and Elmvale in Simcoe County. No school under 500 pupils currently or projected according to board data, but some schools are under capacity and some over. Facility condition and the desire to provide the most modern learning environments and program pathways possible are factors here.
Yet coverage, and public input, focuses on the NIMBY factor-- don't take away our school, because our students are smarter, our students stay in school, our students succeed more -- etc. etc. ad nauseum. Yes, I realize this is community opinion and part of what the ARC reflects back to trustees as they make their decision. Yet the ARC can also have a role in devising options (although one four-school option closing the largest school in Midland seems, er, disconnected from reality) staff haven't considered. Being open to considering those options however, means the committee and the public need to realize what declining enrolment is and the impact fewer students and aging school facilities has have on student success.
Many ARCs end up choosing the status quo as their main recommendation, leaving trustees a minefield of public dissent when they realize the task at hand and make the difficult decision to close a school.
Stay tuned to see whether the declining enrolment working group's recommendations on this process get anywhere and succeed in changing this dynamic.