Monday, February 28, 2011

Would have been a tough one to cover

A decision tonight by the London District Catholic School Board regarding two elementary schools in Oxford County would have been a very tough one for me to cover had I not been on this fellowship. The decision, as tweeted (and soon reported) by the London Free Press' Jennifer O'Brien had the board making its first school-closure decision under the accommodation review committee-era guidelines.
I blogged about this review here and here, though I didn't directly name the schools involved.
St. Francis Catholic School in Princeton and St. Rita Catholic School in Woodstock will close following a school-closure review process that also included St. Michael's and St. Patrick's Catholic schools in Woodstock. From the tweets I gathered that students will be accommodated in the other two Woodstock schools.
So why would this have been a tougher evening for me to cover as a journalist? I have a deeper personal connection to these two schools than most any other I've covered in the region that have been involved in recent school-closure decisions. Both schools come to the Woodstock YMCA for swimming lessons and in the seven years I've worked at the Y I've seen over half of each school's students. With St. Francis, because of its small size, I've seen many students for two or three years as they moved through the class that included the Grade 3 students. With St. Rita, which is spitting distance away from the Y, the kids from the school are regulars.
The village St. Francis finds itself in already lost its public school last year when it closed and was consolidated at a fantastic new building three kilometres up the road in Drumbo.
Two small schools dating to the origins of publicly funded Catholic education in this county will now close.
So I do feel for those who fought to keep these two schools open.
As a journalist however, I would have needed to maintain some emotional distance from the subject at hand had I been there to cover this board meeting. I did so when I was covering the committee meetings before starting the fellowship-- even when I would leave the meetings frustrated that the lessons learned in prior public school board reviews hadn't really sunk in with these communities.
The reality at St. Francis is that this K-8 school only has about 80 students. The main part of the building is over 50 years old and about half the population is housed in portables. Even so, there are only five classes (all split grades) at the school since the student count is low enough that every grade cohort has at most 10 children. As of June 2010, there had been no children registered in SK for that year, and fewer than 10 in JK.
Despite pending installation of municipal water (piped from Drumbo, which the community originally opposed) and the near-distant consideration of municipal sewers that might enable the village at the heart of the school's attendance area to grow, that could never come fast and large enough to make up for the lack of bums in seats today-- nevermind five years from now.
When it comes to St. Rita, the situation is eerily similar. Through previous boundary decisions, the school was hovering around 100 students, with no residential growth available within its attendance area. Woodstock parents insisted the community -- main growth areas to the northeast and southwest, within the attendance areas of the other two schools -- will grow sufficiently to need St. Rita. To add to the mix, the other two Woodstock schools were recently expanded-- a holdover from the previous school-closure process when St. Rita was destined for closure in order to create over-enrolled schools and finally get rid of 30-year-old portables. There was outright stubbornness against accepting demographic realities that overall fewer children will live in new housing and that with only about 20% of all children eventually registering for Catholic schools that wasn't enough to fill the vacant space today (with even greater vacant spaces in the near future).
When the public school review in Princeton was underway, I wrote a feature about the possibility of a joint Catholic-public facility in the village (there are several good examples in Brantford), but as the Catholic school wasn't under threat of closure at the time I wasn't able to get anyone to speak to the idea for the feature.
Given the various fiscal, human-resource and programming realities of running an English-language elementary school in southern Ontario today, keeping both schools open isn't feasible. I could have seen keeping St. Francis open, closing St. Rita and making some serious boundary changes to find a better balance in enrolment. That option wasn't preferred by administration and I don't know if the committee ever gave it serious consideration as a recommendation, since neither community was anywhere near ready suggesting only the other school should close.
Despite how I feel about these two school communities and what lies ahead, my rational assessment of the situation could not have supported keeping both schools open.