Rural Schools

We need to look at rural schools through a different lens.

Education Minister Ramona Jennex has asked school boards to halt closures and suspend reviews. This is enormously frustrating for school board members who have worked through the gut-wrenching choices and have been left with many unanswered questions, such as how to fund schools they were planning to close.

Clumsy as it is, the Minister’s decision may turn out to be a good one. Unlike the approach to some other topics, the government has acknowledged that its schools policy position needs rethinking.

Governments of all stripes have been glad to download to school boards the agonizing decision to close schools. If the only factors to be considered were about education, this might be the least bad way to do it.

But the presence or absence of a school has a much broader implication for rural communities.

Villages and small towns look at every piece of infrastructure as being vital to their future prospects. Look, for example, at the efforts made to save a gas station in Wallace.

The same feeling applies to bank branches, churches, medical offices, and grocery stores. But none is as important as a school, which is crucial to the prospects for attracting and retaining young families.

It is not only an economic choice; schools with small numbers of teachers have difficulty providing sufficient breadth and diversity of programming. If the bus ride is not too long, parents can have mixed feelings about their children going to a newer and larger school.

Some school enrolments have already dwindled to very low levels. Not all of them can be maintained, but more of them can be saved if they are viewed differently. A thoughtful submission to the Nova Scotia Commission on the New Economy shows the way.

It is titled, “Pathway to Rural Regeneration: Transforming Small Schools into Community Hubs,” which is a good summary of its contents.

Rather than looking at a school as solely a place for teaching young people, it argues that the facility should be viewed as a location where a number of community-based activities occur, including teaching.

It cites a number of academic researchers in support, but most readers will find the broad-based initiatives of places like Petite Riviere, Maitland, and River John much more compelling.

In fact, no matter how sound the academic arguments, a community-based model will not succeed unless the communities exhibit that kind of deep involvement.

Here is how such a model might be made to work:

  1. The school board ceases to be a landlord and instead becomes a tenant of a community-based facility.
  2. The community becomes the owner of the structure and responsible for managing the building and the finances. It has to generate additional revenue from other sources such as youth groups, arts organizations, job training, and continuing education.
  3. The school board will have standards that must be met, particularly around safety. Failure to do so will mean that the school ceases to be a tenant. Some standards will need to be adapted to the model.
  4. Special strategies will be needed to ensure program breadth. This can be accomplished in part by having roving teachers in programs like art and music. But for others, there is ample opportunity in long distance teaching technologies that are developing rapidly in post-secondary education.

To make all this possible, the province will need to provide regulations and some technology support for long distance teaching.

When that is done, the role of the school board changes. One possibility will be to preserve schools as they are. Another will be to close them because they are just too small, or because the community has not shown the energy and commitment to make the community hub model work.

But where numbers are big enough, and the community well-engaged, then the hub model can be good for the students and vital to their communities.

“It takes a village to raise a child” can become new again. Today it often takes children to save a village.

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