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On School Closures and Social Justice

November 10, 2012

I have become very concerned about the fact that St. Mark school in Ward 71 came up for closure in 2010 and then again in 2012.  The school remains open because a strong group of parents led by Laura Shewchuk were able to convince the ECSD Board that it was worthwhile saving.  The 2012 vote however, was very close with 4 of the 7 trustees voting in favour of keeping it open.  Becky Kallal, our current Catholic School Trustee for Ward 71 was one of the three trustees who voted to close the school.

This school is located in a neighbourhood and area of the city that has a socially disadvantaged population.  The percentage of rentals city wide is 37% but Woodcroft has a 55% rental rate and Inglewood next door is at 78%.  The average annual income for the city of Edmonton is $72,950.  The average annual income for Woodcroft and Inglewood is $48,969 and $44,401 respectively.  The incidents of property crime, violent crime and offences committed by juveniles are three times the city average in these communities. To view community indicators and demographics go to: http://www.edmonton.ca/for_residents/neighbourhoods/know-your-neighbourhood.aspx#w

In my view, keeping schools open in disadvantaged neighbourhoods is a matter of social justice.  Our Catholic School District agrees that we must support these communities by adding not removing services for at risk children and their families.  The ECSD is piloting a program called “Schools as Community Hubs” in the communities where St. Alphonsus and St. Patrick are located to provide families in these neighbourhood with wrap around services.  By voting to close St. Mark before this pilot project was complete, our current trustee risked taking away St. Mark as a valuable hub of social supports for our vulnerable population. To read more about the ECSD pilot project go to:   “Schools as Community Hubs”

If St. Mark had been voted for closure, it would have been the second school in Woodcroft to have been closed in recent years.  Woodcroft Public Elementary school was closed in 2008.  Even though I had no children in the Edmonton Public School system or in Woodcroft Elementary School, I led the campaign in 2008 to save it.  At the time, I was President of the Woodcroft Community League and could see that Woodcroft School was an important and integral part of our community.  My neighbours’ children attended this school and as I became involved in trying to save the school, I learned a number of very important lessons about small schools.

First of all, the parents of children at Woodcroft were very happy with what the school offered their children.  The parents raved about how little bullying occurred in their school.   They also appreciated the split classes of their small school because this allowed their children flexibility in learning.  The parents were happy with the many options that their child’s school offered such as being an Earth School which involved the students in many green initiatives.  The student body was involved in many fundraising activities that benefited local charities.  The school also used a reward system to encourage good citizenship:  if a child was observed helping another student in some way, they were recognized before the whole school.

The Edmonton Public School Board on the other hand had a very different view of the school.  Because of its low enrollment numbers Woodcroft Elementary had many split classes as a way of balancing the budget. The EPSB  was not pleased with the school’s average PAT scores which they believed was a result of too many split classes.   Studies have shown however, that children in split classes fair just as well academically as those in regular classes. Go to a 2009  article in Today’s Parent to read about one such study:  Split Grade Classes. The EPSB was dismayed as well with the lack of options the children were offered– again, a problem the parents did not believe existed with the school’s fundraising, citizenship and green activities.

It seemed to me that there was a great disconnect between what the school trustees thought was important to a good education and what the parents thought was important.  I believe that those ECSD trustees who voted to close St. Mark may have the same disconnect.  Parents like the idea of the small school where “everyone knows your name”, where the student- teacher ratio is small and where bullying is very limited.

I came across an interesting study out of Simon Fraser University called “Does School Size Matter?” which verified exactly what parents in low enrollment schools have known all along:  that smaller schools experience a variety of benefits in comparison with large schools.  Here is an excerpt from the study:

“School size matters. This review of educational studies clearly shows that there is a growing consensus that small schools not only have an academic achievement advantage but also:
• promote character development,
• emotional stability among their students,
• higher attendance,
• lower dropout rates,
• safer schools,
• collegial working environments and higher levels of job satisfaction for teachers,
• as well as an increased public confidence and parent satisfaction with the schools their children attend.
Most importantly, small schools improve educational outcomes. Students from small schools tend to complete more years of higher education and score higher on standardized tests.
There are other important social benefits. Recent research on educational policy suggests small schools are better at closing achievement gaps between socio-economically disadvantaged and advantaged groups, and better at including ethno-cultural minorities. Furthermore, some evidence suggests that when graduation rates are factored in, small schools are more cost effective on a per capita operating cost basis than large schools. Educators and policy experts are increasingly adopting a social capital perspective when looking at the balance sheet in educational planning.

Perhaps the most important finding is the small school movement emerging in the US and around the world, sharing the conviction that experience in small schools builds better citizens, and provides a better bridge to social equality and civic engagement in later life. The authors conclude Canada is falling behind in the educational debate over the impact of small schools on social cohesion and civic engagement.”

When we read about these benefits it is no wonder that parents of low enrollment schools react so strongly when their child’s school comes up for closure.  They know the benefits of having their children in these schools because they see them every day in the way their children thrive there.

We need to also keep in mind that Alberta’s population is growing in leaps and bounds causing a surge this September in school enrollments for both the ECSD and the EPSD.  Compared to September 2011, there was a 2.7 % increase in students in the Catholic system(930 additional students) and a 3.6 % increase in the public system  (3,873 additional students).  At the same time, our mature neighbourhoods are reflecting a change in demographics as older residents move out and young families move in.  I have seen a tremendous change in my own neighbourhood in the last 5 years.  St. Mark itself received 19 new students since September — quite remarkable considering that most parents know it has been struggling with enrollment. Closing schools now is short sighted and unnecessary. 

I believe that there are ways of saving low enrollment schools that require out of the box, creative thinking.  Keeping in mind our church’s preferential option for the poor, I believe that we can find a way to support our communities without closing essential schools.  If I am elected ECSD Trustee for Ward 71 in the 2013 election, I will work hard not only to support schools in disadvantaged neighbourhoods but help them and their communities to thrive!

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2 Comments
  1. Dylan permalink

    You mention St. Mark school as having a strong parent community that fought against the closing of the school and how it is a valuable resource in the lower income community, even though it has lower enrollment. I am wondering if you have a similar opinion of St. Basil school, which has struggled to maintain its Jan Pawel II Polish Bilingual program alongside the Jean Forest Leadership Academy for many years. Do you believe these programs to be beneficial to the ward and the city and what are your thoughts on keeping open schools and programs that benefit cultural groups, even though they, too, may have low enrollment and are a “drain” on the District’s funds?

    • Yes, I believe in special programs such as the Polish Bilingual Program at St. Basil’s School. I believe that we need some creative thinking and budgeting in our District. Too often the solution to a problem of low enrollment is to shut the school or program down before looking at other alternatives and solutions. First we need to ask why the program is losing students in the first place. We need to talk to the parents and ask them what they think: are they happy with the quality of the program? Are there other factors that might be at play that are causing parents to not choose this special program. Because I am a parent with children in a special program as well — French Immersion–I know that I would like to be asked for input and advice by the District before they decided to close my children’s program down. If elected I hope to represent the concerns of parents who have children in the district now. I think our voice is needed on our Board more than ever before. Thanks for your good question!

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