Local school reviews: the problem of declining enrollment, pt. 2

So, if school enrollments are dropping across the country, what are some of the emerging solutions?

As I mentioned in my last post, our local grade school, one which has stood in the east end of the city for more than one hundred years, is facing an accommodation review. As its enrollment has been dropping over the past decade, like the majority of Canadian school, it’s not much of a surprise. (For more on this trend of declining enrollments, see People for Education’s special report published last spring. Full disclosure: I worked with this great group of parent activists for years.)

However, what’s different now, compared to the panic of ten years ago, is that the school board review is not simply about how to close this neighbourhood school. The proposed solutions are far more creative:

First, recognizing the trend a few years ago, the school began to hunt for magnet programs, which could boost enrollment. French Immersion was rejected as an option (on account of the perhaps-stereotypical image of idling SUVs ferrying children from nearby wealthy neighbourhoods), but the school council has recently been exploring housing an alternative school.

Second, the school board has agreed, through the accommodation review, that students  attending the local school can stay at the school until grade 8, thereby increasing the number of students inside its walls.

A cynic (or someone with a long memory) will rightly point out that this is only an option because Design & Tech  and Home Ec. programs have essentially been eradicated from Senior Schools (grades 7/8).  Dedicated, specialized classroom space was de-funded during the Harris years, and most schools cut these programs. Ergo, grade 7/8 schooling can now be delivered in any general classroom. In sum, there is no longer any reason to ship kids away to bigger, more specialized schools at the end of grade 6. So why do it?

There is a real upside to this decision though; that is, that it minimizes the number of shifts students face within a short scope of years (at the ends of grades 6 and 8). Keeping students at their local schools means they can maintain the social relations they have built over years.

One of the best studies to demonstrate the importance of strong relationships in building the resiliency of children and youth was done two years ago by Resiliency Canada, Toronto Public Health and Doorsteps Neighbourhood Services, called A Community Fit for Children and Youth. Children and youth in this age group who felt connected to their families, their schools and their communities were the least likely to participate in risky behaviour. Yet at the age of twelve or thirteen (just as they were leaving grade six and entering grade seven), they were also beginning to  feel disconnected from these same supports. Part of the challenge from the reports’ recommendations was to families, educators and communities was to examine how to maintain these important connections.

I learned this on a deeply personal level,  one day, when my son was still in grade school, he and I began to talk about the people that he knew in our neighbourhood. It began as an idle question, but soon, gifted souls that we are, we began to make a list of everyone he knew. By the time we got to one hundred people, we stopped, exhausted and awed at the strength of these visible ties he had to our community. Those sorts of social connections need to fostered, and our local school review may just provide the opportunity to do that.


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