The symposium proposes a game plan on rural education
CORNWALL, Ontario – On Thursday, February 3, the United Counties of SD&G hosted a rural education symposium live on YouTube and Zoom.
The symposium followed a report commissioned by the United Counties last year on rural education. This report identified a series of problems with rural education in the region, including multiple school boards competing for the same student pool, administrators viewing education as a business rather than a public service, and inconsistencies in program delivery, among others.
United Counties councilors Kirsten Gardener and Stephanie Jaworski presented to the symposium some of the local issues facing rural education.
They gave examples of local rural communities, such as the Township of North Glengarry. North Glengarry’s largest community is Alexandria, which has five schools, all of which are at less than half capacity. The city of Alexandria has about 980 students, but 2,551 student places.
“All of our schools, regardless of school board, are connected,” Jaworski explained.
Upper Canada District School Board (UCDSB) Secondary School in Alexandria, Glengarry District, was the largest school by capacity and enrolment, but during the Pupil Accommodation Review (PAR) process in 2016 it was selected for closure.
Jaworski also pointed out that there are approximately 300 students in North Glengarry who do not attend schools in North Glengarry, but instead attend schools nearly an hour outside of the community.
Jaworski explained that the ministry’s per-student funding for school boards is also not entirely equitable, with some school boards getting more funding for students based on the different programs they might offer, such as French immersion.
Schools offering programs like French Immersion can present challenges for rural schools and the communities they serve. An example of this is in the community of South Stormont,
In South Stormont, one school, Longue Sault Public (LPS) in the village of Long Sault, offers French immersion, while another UCDSB school, Rothwell-Osnabruck (RO) in the village of Ingleside, does not.
RO saw signups decline, while LPS saw signups increase.
“When one school is dedicated to French immersion and another isn’t, it will have a measurable and predictable impact,” Jaworski said.
Doug Reycraft, former Mayor of South Middlesex, ON, spoke to the symposium about the importance of rural schools in their communities. He explained how rural schools are more than just places of education, but are often anchors in their communities by serving as multipurpose meeting places.
“When the only school in a small town is closed, families look elsewhere for a home to put down roots,” Reycraft noted, which isn’t happening in big city neighborhoods.
The keynote speaker for the symposium was Paul Bennett, author and director of the Schoolhouse Institute and assistant professor of education at Dalhousie University.
More than 10 years ago, Bennett became passionate about the cause of rural education after attending a meeting about a school closure in a small community in his native Nova Scotia.
Bennett recounted his experiences since then and the tricks and tactics he’s learned when dealing with school boards that want to close rural community schools.
In 2016, UCDSB selected a number of schools for closure as part of its PAR process. Community campaigns and lobbying the school board led to far fewer schools closing, but Bennett warned that this was only a reprieve and he often saw schools closed in the second PARs a few years after being spared.
Bennett explained that the PAR process “is about closing schools, not renewing communities.”
He said that schools should be at the center of the economic development of rural communities and that communities should engage and participate directly in the development of their local schools.
“You have so many advantages when you realize you have to engage with schools with or without the school board,” he said.
The full symposium can be viewed on the SD&G United Counties YouTube channel.