Steven Rhude and Paul Bennett stand on Parade Street in Yarmouth where two schools sit empty and another school is under review. TINA COMEAU PHOTO
By Tina Comeau
With declining enrolments and aging school buildings, schools are being put through a school review process that usually only presents two options: keep the school open or send students to a renovated or newly-constructed school outside of the community.
Small school advocate Paul Bennett says there should be a third option aimed at saving small schools from closure and at saving the rural communities from extinction. This involves recognizing that in communities, schools are social anchors and economic drivers and therefore should be treated as the hub of a community.
Bennett, an adjunct professor of education at Saint Mary’s University, is the director of Schoolhouse Consulting. He and a team of small school advocates produced a ‘Schools at the Centre’ vision plan, which he calls a public engagement model for rural education and development that transforms the existing school review process into a community building initiative.
Well, says Bennett, it goes beyond the close it or move it options that exist now.
“The community hub concept starts with the premise that the school is not going to occupy the whole facility, it’s going to be a portion. So calculate what proportion you need for the school and then start building community groups into it,” he says. Find community groups that perhaps can’t afford commercial space and consider having them occupy empty space in a school, instead of closing the school.
Bennett says small schools should be looked upon as community assets, not liabilities as they age and become in need of repair.
(You can visit the Facebook page of the Nova Scotia Small Schools Initiative by clicking here.)
Still, if you must build new schools, then build them in the centre of communities, says Bennett, not on the peripheral of them.
Bennett and a colleague, Steven Rhude, made a presentation to the Tri-County Regional School Board this month. In fact, they've made many presentations to school boards and school groups across the province. Rhude is an example of how just as schools will draw people to a community, closing them can drive families away or fail to attract them. He moved his family from Lunenburg to Wolfville when his child’s school was closed, preferring the option of his son having a shorter commute to school compared to years of lengthy bus rides. But, he says, not everyone is as mobile as his family was, and so not everyone has this option.
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The ‘Schools at the Centre’ proposal was presented to the education minister 18 months ago, but Bennett says they never received a formal response. The plan didn’t get a formal response from the Tri-County board either. Board chair Donna Tidd said it was an interesting presentation, but she said the board is just receiving the information, it has no plans at this point to act on it.
On the evening of March 26, the school board will make its decisions whether to close or keep open Arcadia, Central and/or South Centennial schools. A public meeting is being held at the Yarmouth high school on Forest Street at 6:30 p.m.
Bennett says maybe schools themselves should take the onus of presenting another option during school reviews instead of settling for the options a school board lays out to them. He says there are a few schools in the province that have done this.
“There is nothing in the legislation that precludes you from saying none of the above,” Bennett says, adding schools should be looked at as an anchor tenant for a community, the same way a large retailer is seen as an anchor tenant in a shopping mall.
And given the choice, he says, why not move forward with 20 school renovations instead of building five new schools if you're using the same amount of money.