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Transforming small schools into rural hubs

Riverport District Consolidated School closed in 2011, one of several schools proposed for review. (Photo Credit: Rustik Magazine)

Riverport District Consolidated School closed in 2011, after a lengthy review process. (Photo Credit: Rustik Magazine)

Across the Maritime provinces, battles continue to rage over the closure of schools in small communities, repeating the same destructive process year after year. But some creative ideas are beginning to emerge amid the turmoil.

Throughout 2012-13, three Nova Scotia school boards – Chignecto-Central Regional, South Shore Regional, and Tri-County Regional – put 14 communities through another painful endurance test. Small villages like Petite Riviere, Maitland, River John, Wentworth and Mill Village were thrown into crisis, forcing hundreds of rural and small town residents to rally in defense of not just their elementary schools but their entire communities.

Rural regeneration can – and should – begin in Nova Scotia’s villages and small towns. There is enormous potential to be unlocked within a 90-minute drive of Halifax. Fully 45 per cent of Nova Scotia’s citizens live in communities of fewer than 5,000 people, and that is what makes this province truly unique. Rebuilding the faltering rural economy should start – rather than end – with schools, providing children and families with a more secure future.

Signs of resilience

Amidst the upheaval of reviewing schools for closure, something is beginning to stir in small towns across Nova Scotia. Community resilience is beginning to emerge from the bottom up, as grassroots community groups, one after another, are rejecting the provincial closure agenda and embracing a ‘third option’. This entails transforming their under-utilized small schools into community hubs built around an ‘anchor tenant’ – the P-6 population of students and teachers. Instead of accepting the law of demographic gravity, they are organizing to rebuild their communities and looking to the school boards to join in that project.

NSSSILogoThe Small Schools Initiative, one such campaign, has found some unlikely champions. Dan Leger, a columnist for the Chronicle Herald newspaper, jumped into the fray on 4 February, 2013 with a very persuasive message with his article, entitled ‘Want to save small towns? Save their schools’. Provincial business groups like the Truro-based Nova Scotia Chambers of Commerce and municipal leaders like Don Downe, mayor of the Municipality of the District of Lunenburg, now speak out publicly in favour of a totally different approach, one that does not lead to abandoning schools and downloading the properties onto local municipalities. And the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities issued a report in October 2012 calling for action to staunch the hemorrhage of people from rural communities outside of Halifax and the so-called central corridor of the province.

The clear message, delivered at public hearings, at kitchen tables, and in general stores, is that plugging the rural population drain should be a much higher priority for the Nova Scotia government.

The realities for communities outside the urban corridor are stark and almost impossible to ignore. School closures in small villages like Riverport, Heatherton and Newport Station are leaving a bitter harvest of ‘For Sale’ signs on front lawns and in the windows of remaining shops.

Big questions call for straight answers: Without rural schools, where will the children and families come from to regenerate the declining rural economy? Without them, how long do communities survive? Impact Assessment Reports review the potential impact of a school board decision to permanently close a public school using a formula laid out by the Department of Education. They direct school committees to choose between two losing propositions: the status quo or further consolidation. In a few cases, the second option is worse, splitting up school families and bussing them to scattered sites over poor country roads.

The emerging third option

In the winter of 2012-13, in the shadow of the provincially-mandated school review process, study committees in Maitland, River John, and Petite Riviere rejected the status quo trap, declined to play the losing game, and generated their own community-based third options. Not content to seek a reprieve, they got busy and produced incredibly innovative, community-building activities to fill the empty spaces and ensure the long-term sustainability of their schools.

Dr. David Clandfield, a leading Canadian advocate for community hubs, describes them as, “central gathering place[s] for people, their activities and events.” Hubs are more than just, “high-use, multipurpose” centres; rather they are two-way hubs where children’s learning activities contribute to community development and where, in turn, “community activities contribute to, and enrich, children’s learning within the school.”

Transforming schools into community hubs means moving away from traditional ideas of ‘community use’ of schools towards ‘co-location’ of services, with the ultimate goal of a ‘two-way’ community hub school. In Clandfield’s formulation, granting access to schools after-hours is only an initial step on the path to cultural transformation in the school community. It’s ‘local’ in an intentional way, and builds upon the sense of community found in a village, small town or city neighbourhood.

Community hub schools provide a useful way to break down so-called educational silos and advance ‘inter-generational learning’. Child, health and family services come together with adult education providers and seniors groups to provide fresh opportunities to more systematically alleviate poverty as well as offer a wider span of learning activities, ranging from health prevention to financial literacy to arts appreciation. Such full-service schools can also provide a home for community gardens, once the cornerstone of outdoor activities for rural schoolchildren in Nova Scotia.

The idea of a full service hub school has great appeal in rural Nova Scotia, where most schools offer remarkably standardized programs. It taps into the enormous potential for place-based, community-initiated curriculum enhancements that strengthen community attachments, a vital step in stemming the out-migration of rural youth. It also builds upon a local community base, drawing parents, businesses and groups into the school community.

The divisive school review process has now been suspended by the province’s Minister of Education. This move will accomplish little, however, unless it leads to building smaller community schools, supporting innovative local enterprises, modelling sustainable living practices and providing community-based education on a more human scale. That is cause for hope in rural and small town Nova Scotia.

Paul W. Bennett (Ed.D.) is the director of Schoolhouse Consulting and an Adjunct Professor of Education at Saint Mary’s University, Halifax. In May 2012, he co-founded the Nova Scotia Small Schools Initiative. His most recent books are Vanishing Schools, Threatened Communities: The Contested Schoolhouse in Maritime Canada, 1850-2010 (2011), and The Last Stand: Schools, Communities and the Future of Rural Nova Scotia (Fall 2013).

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