For Islanders who have grown up in a rural province, whose strength socially and economically has been its local communities, it must be sad and somewhat inexplicable to watch as government, for the second time in six years, abandons small rural schools and the families whose children depend on them.
The Minister of Education and his department professionals would have us believe low enrollment demands the closure of small schools in Georgetown and Belfast, up west in Bloomfield and St. Louis, and in the crime infested inner city streets of Charlottetown.
Minister Currie claims his latest school consolidation efforts are intended to create fairness and equality, to rebalance the system and the children going to small schools will be afforded greater learning opportunities in bigger schools down the road. He also talks of the need to reduce operating budgets and save money when the operation of the small schools being targeted requires a mere pittance.
Firstly, any decision to close schools should come only after province-wide rezoning and a transportation review both of which have been promised for a decade or more but never undertaken. Government doesn’t want to unsettle or inconvenience Islanders, or the Teacher’s Federation, or the bus driver’s union, to rejig the system. That would be the right thing to do for public education in the province, however the political risks are deemed unacceptable. Far easier to make ad hoc changes, close a few vulnerable small schools and minimize public dissent.
As demonstrated throughout the world and in other Canadian jurisdictions, the quality of education in small schools, especially at the primary grade level, often exceeds what can be achieved in bigger schools, despite the broadened curriculum and services offered in the bigger schools.
In closing small schools like Georgetown Elementary, the minister is taking away the advantages children enjoy in that school such as small class size and proximity to home and local community, and burdening those same children with longer bus rides, larger classes, and an overcrowded school environment where social and emotional problems are more likely to occur.
The fairness and rebalancing Minister Currie is talking about is an illusion, fed by a doctrine of public education that prefers consolidation and centralization, and an approach to learning that has turned our classrooms into department stores where focusing on core curriculum has become almost impossible.
The approved Grade 1 curriculum in Island schools includes everything from communications and information technology to French immersion. When you add other subject areas like health, social studies, and physical education, it’s a wonder any class time exists to teach the basic skills of reading, writing and numeracy.
When it comes to teaching core curriculum, properly resourced small schools can provide all our younger children need for their early education. I challenge the minister and his department to show otherwise.
The current school closure debate has been driven by concern for community and while I am truly saddened by the continued erosion of rural life in Prince Edward Island, our main defense of smaller, local schools should be mainly about their educational merits and their potential as little engines of learning for little people.
We should be careful not to fight the battle for the wrong reasons. It is true that rural schools have always been vital community institutions, but the structure of rural community has changed drastically over the years, and not every small rural school easily identifies with a community, other than the community of families and students who use it.
Nevertheless, I believe the community hub model for small schools being proposed by the Leader of the Green Party, Peter Bevan-Baker, is innovative and could have application in traditional communities like Georgetown.
In Nova Scotia, there are dozens of schools at present with enrollments of less than 100 children. The Nova Scotia Small Schools Initiative has harnessed academic expertise and public support to put small schools at the heart of rural revitalization.
In our province, so rural and local in character, it is astonishing government and the educational establishment have ignored the virtues of smaller schools, and lacked the imagination and creativity to foster and sustain them. Where is the innovative thinking? Where is the willingness to move away from the current orthodoxy? And where is the leadership that pulls educational policy out of its stagnant silo and integrates it with a purposeful, effective rural development strategy?
Other than possibly Lucy Maud Montgomery, the Island’s most famous writer was Sir Andrew Macphail of Orwell, a professor of history and medicine at McGill University. His autobiographical book The Master’s Wife, published in 1939, is a beautiful portrait of rural life in Prince Edward Island at the turn of the 20th Century.
Macphail received his early education at the two-room Uigg Grammar School, which I am certain had an enrollment far below what Minister Currie would deem viable today.
Sir Andrew clearly missed out on educational opportunities.
Public education in Prince Edward Island needs a new vision and direction. That vision and direction won’t be generated by a professional bureaucracy resistant to new ideas and change. Abandoning small, local schools in rural parts of the province is both unnecessary and short-sighted, and sacrifices their inherent qualities on the altar of bigness and pretended opportunity.