Small Schools, Big Decisions

We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. –T, S. Eliot

It’s that time again–a few small rural schools are once again in the fight of their lives. Sadly, I noticed Swift Current Academy and James Cook Memorial are among those on the list.

Back in my university days, I had a very good friend from Swift Current. We were residence roommates for a while.  Though we came from communities fairly close together and of roughly the same size I was always envious of the extras he enjoyed while being a student at Swift Current Academy. For instance it had a drama club and he was able to attend numerous provincial festivals. It also had music at all levels and I was decidedly envious of his ability to play piano, something he’d picked up at school. They also had a gym. The one in my community, while I was in school, was just an empty shell; the money was not found to complete it until after I was gone.

Swift Current, viewed from a hill above nearby Black River. I can see the tops of those hills from my house in Souhern Harbour. 

In the summer, from time to time, I’d drive down and spend the day with him. Perhaps we’d head down to Marystown, just for a gab and a bite. He loved poetry and would spend most the time trying to make me love the work of T. S Eliot as much as he did. It didn’t work. I still don’t like it much. Perhaps we’d hang out at his house and play board games or talk about books. My favourite times would be when we’d just walk along the roads, stopping from time to time to go out on the many wharves that lined the river’s edge. Mostly, the water would be drifting lazily by; Piper’s Hole was generally sleeping monster. From time to time, though, especially after rain it would awaken and I’d see the furious flow that gave the place its name. Swift Current is like that.

He’s gone now, died over thirty years ago, but never really all that far from me; I think fondly of Steve and his home all the time.

During the 1990s I was a Physics / Math instructor with the province’s distance education program. Daily, I’d enter one of our audiographic studios and hold class with my students, dispersed all throughout the province. Swift Current Academy was one of my schools and, for years, I was a virtual member of the staff. I even managed to get out to a few of their spring proms.

That’s been a while, too. I moved on to educational administration in the late nineties. Most of my former students are, by now, in their forties or just about there, and busily getting on with their lives…mostly somewhere else, as it turns out.

Swift Current is what you might call “off the beaten track.” To get there you have to travel about 25 km down the Burin Peninsula highway The school is similar to what you’d find in most small communities, perched kind of out of sight on the side of a hill and meant to handle around 200 to 250 students, which is what it had in the ‘70s and ‘80’s.  Back when I taught via distance, it was declining from 150 to 110. There’s a little less than that there right now. Last time I checked it was home to 28 students. That’s right, 28. Today’s enrollment may be a little off but there are around 15-16 students in k-6 and 12-13 in 7-12, or thereabouts. That’s all the more remarkable when you realize that it also serves two other nearby communities, Garden Cove and North Harbour.

Same for Cook’s Harbour. When I taught there via distance, enrollment was declining from around 60 to 50. No there are 10 or 11 students, about equally divided between k-6 and 7-12.

Now the existence of the schools is under question, for what must be the umpteenth time. The district feels there’s money to be saved by busing Swift Current Academy students either to Arnold’s Cove or to Clarenville, where, additionally, the schools they will then attend can offer “better programming.” Besides, it can be pointed out that a trip from Swift Current Academy to Tricentia Academy in Arnold’s Cove is only around 45 km and should only take about 30 minutes by bus. Similarly with Cook’s Harbour. The distance from The school there to White Hills Academy is 45 km, a trip that can be done on a bus in 45 minutes.

There’s just one thing wrong with this reasoning–basically everything. Let’s dissect it bit by bit.

A fisher’s wharf in Garden Cove.

Let’s start with the supposed savings of money. Anyone who’s ever done educational administration knows there are no simple formulas. Everything is interrelated, just like the Earth’s own living system. Attempts to enact change using a simplistic cause-and-effect approach tend to fail–they often backfire, in fact–because of the many hard-to-see complexities that lurk beneath the surface. Cutting a school does not translate to savings as the move-around of students creates additional pressures on the communities they leave and on the schools to which they are moved. As often as not, the loss of 2-3 teachers at the school to be closed is met by a needed addition of the same number of people in the school that receives them. Oh, and vastly increased bussing costs. No savings. None. Forget it.

Now there’s the issue of “better programming.” This notion is based on the two false and stupid premises I shall call “False and Stupid Premise 1” or “FSP1” and ”False and Stupid Premise 2” or, FSP2. Let’s now take them on.

FSP1: Multi-age, multi-grade classes are second-rate. This is mainly driven by the people who’ve known nothing else–mostly people who are ignorant of life in small communities. They’ve only been in a classroom where a teacher is in charge of just one grade and therefore assume that if you pop in a second grade the teacher’s efforts have to double. Since that’s not possible, then it follows that the students then only get half an education. That’s not necessarily true. It’s only true if you view classes as teacher-centred, which, frankly most urban folk tend to, having come from an environment where all hands sit neatly in rows, listen diligently as a teacher drones on about whatever from the front of the room and then go and do a bunch of paper-and pencil based homework at home. My friend Dr. J. H., puts it like this, “Too many people equate teaching with telling.” In most of our small rural schools it’s not like that, nor has it ever been. That’s because, with multi-age multi-grade (let’s call it MG-MA) being an omnipresent reality, classes have always tended to be more student-centered. Unlike the urban classrooms, the rural ones have been much less rigid. The teacher does not drone on, ad nauseum, to the  whole group. They can’t. And that’s a good thing. Instead, with the MG-MA class, the focus is more on getting the students to do the work and on finding ways to help them do just that. Now, think about it–which way do you think would be more effective (a) listening and watching a teacher do something (bear in mind the typical tolerance that a child has for watching and listening to anything) or (b) the child being made to do that thing for themselves. Unless you are truly daft you can see that the answer has to be the latter. Now, this is not to imply that MG-MA is necessarily easier and more effective–it’s not. Pulling off MG-MA requires appropriate training, support and a student-centered mindset. With those in place, though, it’s in no way inferior.

FSP2: A larger school naturaly has more to offer. It’s only natural to assume that if you double the school’s complement of students, so, too, will the staff complement double. And, then, with more students, and teachers who, presumably, will also give of their extra time voluntarily there’ll be a broader offering of courses and extracurricular activities. Too bad it does not work that way at all. First of all, the larger the school, the leaner the operation. Look for yourself at the pupil-teacher ratios in the various schools. You’ll notice that they’re quite generous in the small schools and not so much in the larger schools where teachers have to struggle with classes from 25 to 35 students. Simply put, the larger the schools the more harried the teachers and the less attention each student gets in class. But it doesn’t stop there. While large schools DO offer a wider variety of extra-curricular activities the number that each student can reasonably get involved with also declines. Consider varsity sports, for example. In a school of 1000 students, only the 15 or so BEST basketballers can make the team, and that team only. In a small school, just about everyone with an interest gets to do it. Besides, they also get to play on the volleyball team, the badminton team, etc. Small schools, by their very nature, encourage all students to participate in most, if not all, activities.

Finally there’s that whole load of misinformation and just plain wrong-headedness around busing. Consider again Swift Current, sure, it only takes around 30 minutes to drive from Swift Current to Arnold’s Cove but that’s not how buses work. The bus has to start it’s run right at the southern end of the community and then wend its way through the town making anywhere from 4-7  stops along the way. Each stop takes time. With that done, the bus then has to go down into Garden Cove and do the same. With that out of the way it then has to do the same in North Harbour. That’s a total distance of about 70 km and a total driving time of around 1 h 15 minutes. And that’s on a good day. How many good days to you think we can expect in the winter? Not a lot. Over the typically snow-covered roads we expect from December to March you can double that. Of course things can be made more efficient. The buses from Garden Cove and North Harbour, for example can just meet the bus from Swift Current and shorten things up somewhat–you’ve still got three busses running though. Not exactly a recipe for cost savings.

Now let’s look at Cook’s Harbour. It’s about a 50 km trip from Cook’s Harbour to While Hills Academy in St. Anthony, with as associated driving time of around 45 minutes. Adding in the stops you need to make it’s more like an hour. Again, though, on a good day. Have you ever driven the route in winter? I have, several times, and let me tell you, it’s harrowing. Cook’s Harbour is way up there at the top of the Great Northern Peninsula and it tends to get a lot of wind and drifting snow. To put it mildly the roads are tricky. Once again, I’d double the driving time on most days in winter, assuming the roads are passable at all.

Think about it, the busing “solution” ensures that the students from the community spend three to maybe four hours per day on school buses. Let’s do that again, but slower: Children. Spend. The. Bulk. Of. Their. Time. Out. Of. School. Driving. To. School. “Only on the bad days!” you may well retort to which I can only respond, “Have you ever been on those routes?” Most days during the school year are bad days. That’s how it is at the foggy soggy bottom of Placentia Bay and the wind and snow swept tip of the Great Northern Peninsula. You just think you know it because it’s not quite like that where you’re used to living.”

Which kind of brings us to the heart of the problem: the decisions for the community are not being made either by the community or, for that matter, to be in its best interests. That’s how it has to be, given that, by law, education in Canada is a provincial / territorial matter. Since we’ve socialized it, it stands to reason that the needs of the province as a whole takes precedence over that of any individual, school or community.

That said, there’s a certain inevitable sense of tragedy associated with the notion that those who decide are not those who have to live with it. For me, a transplanted bayman, it’s hard not to feel a certain double-dose of bitterness. First, it saddens me to see how so many of my fellow bayman expats so quickly adopt townie ways and completely shun the rural life that nurtured them. Worse, though, is the anger I get listening to listening to casual conversations in town; it’s long been my suspicion that townies would love it if they didn’t, in their words, “have to foot the bill for all of the lazy people who choose to live the comfy life ‘out around the bay.’”

Ah, yes, “around the bay” that catch-all phrase for everything in this province that exists outside the Northeast Avalon, that homogeneous hinterland where the people apparently talk funny, ride quads and do precious little work.

Which brings me back, sort of, to that T. S. Eliot quote, but in a very messed up way. Rather than gaining wisdom and depth of understanding from that long time of coexistence between the urban and rural parts of the province, it seems as though nothing changes. Yes, we come back to where we were, but none the wiser and none the better. Poor Eliot is totally wrong, at least as Newfoundland and Labrador is concerned. He’d have been better off using just two words–nothing changes.

We’re just back to where we’ve always been. In times past, decisions regarding outport Newfoundland were frequently made in St. John’s, for reasons that primarily suited the city and were based on a limited, negatively-biased understanding of not just outport life in general but also on what effect these choices would have not only on the communities directly affected but also on the province as a whole.

The basis of that very decision making is typically the back-of-the-envelope type where someone estimates the taxes paid directly by the community and then compares that value to the cost of providing services. If the former is smaller than the latter then it’s concluded that the service is too expensive to provide. It’s not worth it; a sinkhole that needs to be plugged. This is typically followed by complaints about self entitled bay dwellers, perhaps even calls for resettlement.

The stupid narrow mindedness of this so-called logic is rarely called to question, even though the flaws are readily apparent.

Frankly, there’s a complete ignorance of the simple fact that the economy of the St. John’s area is essentially parasitic, akin to a tremendous sucking vacuum, a ravenous black hole that only exists as long as money is lobbed into it from some external source.  It has few primary industries of its own. The majority of the jobs—retail, government, health care and education—do not create wealth themselves, but, rather redistribute it secondarily.

By contrast, the viable rural communities are home to industries that generate the wealth that sustains the capital. Every time a load of fish is landed, perhaps processed and then sold outside the province, every time a boat or train load of ore is sold on the world market, every time a load of lumber or paper is shipped off, each and every barrel of oil that leaves here, new money is put into the province’s coffers. Oh and let’s not forget the huge money that pours into outport Newfoundland courtesy of the men and women who take it home from the long work commute to Fort Mac. The best that St. John’s can do is recycle it a bit, through retail, services and taxation, and then pass it around for the crowd to have a few jars and complain about the stupid baymen and plot how they can all be fixed for once and for all.

Simply put, a vibrant and wealthy St. John’s is totally dependent on an equally vibrant and wealthy everything else and everyone would do well to bear that in mind.

Swift Current, viewed from a wharf in Garden Cove.

But that’s not what’s really disquieting. What is truly bothersome is the ease with which everyone accepts simple two-column financial accounting to be the only yardstick by which fiscal and social policy can be measured and decided. Life’s value cannot be properly and completely  counted using a financial balance sheet. Sure it’s one huge and reliable measure–after all, there’s absolutely no point in trying to create or build anything you cannot afford–but it cannot be the only measure. There are other things, including overall quality of life, especially as it affects one health, both physical and mental and, of course, the deeper portions of finance that extend beyond a simple balance sheet.

So what’s the point here? This: when making decisions about the future viability of communities it’s important to look beyond the obvious. Sure, do an accounting, but do it thoroughly. Look at the money but bear in mind that some dollars (ones that grow the economy) are worth more than others (the ones that are just recycled and which trickled down). Look also at the bigger picture. Is the loss of a single small school really worth it if it leads to the economic death  of  once-viable community? Are the alternatives as good as we think? Are they even safe? Even desirable at all?

I am reminded of my 21 years at the Department of Education. In the late eighties and early nineties, when the huge drop-off in student enrollment was first being realized, a term was coined: necessarily existent schools. It’s pretty much self-explanatory. At that time, there was a huge cull underway on schools and on school boards. Approximately 40 school districts was reduced, in several cycles, down to two–an English and a French one. At The same time the number of schools was reduced from around 1000 to a little over 300. Through it all, though, there was always a realization that, for some communities, closing a school was not a practical option and, even though the costs of operating those schools were significantly higher per capita, there was agreement, grudging, perhaps, but still agreement, that this was just part of maintaining a primarily-rural society. As time went on, though, more and more mean-spiritedness crept into the psyche and the term “necessarily existent schools” was dropped some time in the mid nineties. Now, nothing is off the table. Anything goes–literally.

We Newfoundlanders and Labradorians pride ourselves on being friendly, caring and community minded people. Is that really the case, though? A friend of mine has set me straight on the idea of the friendly NL’r. For years I recall him telling me, perhaps it’s not that we’re naturally friendly but that we haven’t been tested, really tested, lately. Well now, with oil at just under $65 per barrel, a depleted fishery, an all but dead pulp and paper industry and a mining industry sadly in need of some TLC it’s safe to say that we’re being tested and what’s the response from the supposedly affluent urban part of the province? “Shag the rural part, shut it down. Too expensive. Let them move to town or move away, whatever.”

Is that we we really want? Clearly, for me, the answer is, “no, not necessarily, let’s look closer.” In the case of of Swift Current Academy and James Cook Memorial I believe that to be very much the case.

Just today, on the radio I heard a story of how students from the recently damaged Bishop Field school had to move to the former School for the Deaf. Many of the parents concerned about the long bus ride. It’s a good thirty to forty minutes and the general consensus is that this is too long and that the situation needs to be rectified as soon as possible. Too bad the same sympathy cannot be extended to the few rural students who may soon have to face rides 4 times as long.

The tip of Sound Island (home of my children’s maternal Great-Great Grandmother), where Piper’s Hole River meets its brackish end

A few months back I was out home in Southern Harbour and had a little time on my hands so I drove down through Swift Current, just like it used to so many years ago. I stopped by the side of the road a few times and even walked out on some of the wharves, still marvelling at the river winding its way to its brackish end just past Sound Island. I looked toward the graveyard and thought of Steve, realizing that, of the people I knew from there from back in the day, none were left. I made a point of driving through Garden Cove and North Harbour on the way back. For the whole trip I did not see a single school-aged child. I so dearly hope this is not a portent.