Wednesday, May 20, 2009

On small, and rural

Middlesex County politicians have been front-and-centre for over two years now speaking to their concerns with accommodation reviews impacting their constituents. This odd-shaped county, which surrounds the City of London to the west, north and east, covers a vast chunk of Thames Valley District School Board territory. Its own administrative headquarters still lie within the city (similar to the Wellington County / Guelph scenario), and its politicians and residents are consumed with an identity of not being London.
The county is dotted with schools, small schools, many built in the days when K-12 education was still controlled by township boards. Its few high schools located in the towns whose ratepayers could support the cost of building and running them.
In the first round of TVDSB reviews, two committees were struck to look at schools in the 'north' and in the 'west.' In split votes, trustees accepted the recommendations of staff over those presented by the committees, even though the final report from the north committee contained the most unique, well-developed recommendations out of all 10 first-round reviews in the Thames Valley. It had involvement (perhaps too late) of the county, the local townships, the agricultural society and even nearby a First Nation.
Communities involved in both reviews petitioned the outcomes to the Ministry of Education, and two separate reviews were granted. Both the first review and second made some recommendations but essentially confirmed the board's policy was in keeping with ministry guidelines. Some key passages from the most recent (both completed by former ed minister David Cooke). The ellipses indicate where I have skimmed over the portions in between each paragraph.
Mayor Doug Reycraft and the Petitioners make a strong argument that small rural schools are hubs for their communities. The difficulty with that argument, in the case of Caradoc South and Metcalfe Central Public Schools, is that there is no community use of these schools.
I am sure that the board would argue that they cannot afford to staff the school as a community centre and perhaps that would be a Municipal responsibility. There is a conflict here between local communities who fear the loss of a rural way of life if small rural schools close and a School Board that believes student success must come first and that must be achieved through equitable access to programs for all students.
If it is Board policy to achieve program objectives by accommodating students in elementary schools of 350-400 students, then the Board should be clear as to why this is important and what the impact will be on student success. Over time Trustees will be able to measure the impact of this direction. The Trustees must then hold the Director accountable for the success of this approach. If this direction is official Board policy then ARCs should be informed that accommodation plans must reflect this fact. This approach might avoid raising false hopes regarding the future of some schools and might result in ARCs working on recommendations that fit Board policy.
The evidence is overwhelming that the Board did not violate its policy and procedures. The Board’s response to the specifics in the Petitions is supported by ARC minutes and Board minutes. The Administration’s response and analysis of the ARC report is comprehensive and demonstrates that the Board did take the ARC report seriously and they valued the work of the ARC.
These passages reinforce various grievances over an utter failure of boards and the ministry to explain the ARC process.
Despite all this, Reycraft and others realize the 'true' fight is not with their local school board, as reported by the Strathroy Age Dispatch, despite taking every opportunity to chastise and criticize the board for its decisions. The paper also supported the point with an editorial. I would quibble with the way Reycraft characterizes the fight against small rural schools. The challenge, though exacerbated by rural, is not uniquely rural and applies to all small schools.
The untold story out there would start with ministry funding, policy and provincial framework contract agreements and trickle all the way down to the classroom showing all the steps along the way where K-8 schools of 100 students (even if they fill the small building they live in) in southern Ontario will continue becoming more and more challenging to run, and how maintaining these could create a two-tier small/large school system-- where those who went to a small school have the community but not the programs and the large schools have more of the latter and less of the former.


Anonymous said...

What makes matters worse is that there has been little effort by the smaller, rural boards and their communities to include in their economic development and marketing strategies attention to small schools and their benefits.

There are people who make choices in their lives and move to small communities BECAUSE of the small schools and rural environment.

How many parents have ever been asked to help determine if there are programs that are more suited to urban schools, that the smaller schools could do without, so that at the very least the children some away with a quality grounding in basics.

The problem with the champions of "school as hub of the community" angle is that in small communities the nature of community schools is very different than in large urban communities where population necessitates recreation programs run out of the schools and folks have a choice between several options.

When a small town has spent tax dollars on building an indoor recreation centre, with rooms, facilities and space, it does the schools no good to compete with those.

Isn't it ironic that most rural communities already see their schools as the hubs of their communities but its those hubs being closed?

Does it make sense to any one else?

Ed. Reporter - "an utter failure of boards and the ministry to explain the ARC process."

I think it was just a provincial process that got in the way of the working dynamic between trustees and community. Delivery of the guidelines depended too much on the quality of administration and managing that went into it at board level.

In my communities case, the ARC just tried to make the best of things...even if they didn't like what was going on. They figured that the writing was on the wall re: changes and in review gave parts of the process a thumbs down.

Anonymous said...

I am a proponent of small, viable, rural schools. It is inaccurate to say these small schools don't have the same program as larger schools. Program is now being delivered electronically and through the use of SMARTboards, which are interactive, on-line sources of information. Additionally, itinerant French and music teachers bring their skills and knowledge to smaller schools. I was involved with an ARC; when I questioned what was meant by "additional programming at a larger school" I was told it meant a larger gynasium, where more activities could be held! It did not mean more French, music, geography, etc. Small schools have many advantages, and the disadvantages can be addressed with technology.

Education Reporter said...

Anon#1 "a provincial process that got in the way of a working dynamic?"
You must have had a very rare board where there was a "working dynamic" when it came to school closures. I'm not aware of any board that had one-- search the Ontario Court records for "district school board" or "Catholic school board" and of the handful of hits, you'll notice all are pre-ARC.
If you want to go pre-amalgamation, I'd also love to know what municipality would have eagerly raised the education mill rate to sustain and support a full range of programming at a small school. The parents probably would have loved it-- the retired seniors who actually vote would have crucified those politicians at the next election for raising their taxes.

Yes, technology is wonderful. It's not for everyone however and while some kids can learn better, faster, etc. with a videoconference link, their own will to do well and determination, some times you need the face-to-face interaction. Try teaching biology (ie: dissection) over a video link. Or chemistry.
Itinerant teachers are what I like to refer to as a necessary evil. They allow a board to bring specialists to every school / as many schools as possible. I'd rather pay my specialist teacher to teach in one school all day, every day then spend any of his/her time driving around the countryside from one school to the next instead of teaching. We pay our teachers well to teach, not rack up the mileage on their cars.

As I pointed out in the original post, one of the dream stories I'll write in my career, currently back-burnered with a whole series of others, would explain how everything currently works together to create a situation that makes it increasingly difficult for boards to sustain small schools (particularly in older buildings).

Anonymous said...

re: "working dynamic"

Actually, although the accommodation review process pretty much got a thumbs down from the ARC participants in my town the working dynamic between ARC and trustees was good. The dynamic actually improved at meetings when trustees were present than at those ARC meetings where only one trustee was in attendance and that was the one on the ARC itself.

And thanks for asking...I do know of a board where the "working dynamic" around the accommodation review guidelines worked. The Toronto Catholic Board - you know the one in hot water with its community and the Ed. Minister(lot of that going around these days).
As I understand it that board hired independent facilitators to run their ARC meetings and they followed the guidelines almost to a tee....even including EQAO scores in their valuation process.

Some boards had trustees leading the meetings, while others had board staff(like mine).

ARC participants really didn't like the meetings being led by board staff one bit....but even when the ARC shared this in the evaluation of the process board admin. is still running the show pretty much this round.