What we lose when we close a school

The story behind the massive school cuts and the planned shuttering of five schools in B.C. is more than just numbers.

It’s not only about balancing budgets and financial efficiencies. It also involves ethical and moral decisions that can have a devastating impact on schools, essentially community centres linking students with people in their communities as well as health, recreation and arts services.

By closing schools, students, teachers and other school staff are being uprooted from their tight-knit communities and forced to start over. Many of the affected locals in Vancouver worry about how the closures will affect their neighbourhoods, families, businesses, and bonds with friends and teachers.

“Closing schools is a big deal because essentially you are closing or shifting communities,” says David Coulter, a University of British Columbia professor and former superintendent in Manitoba public schools, in an interview with Our Kids Media.

Wendy L. Poole, associate professor at the department of educational studies at the University of British Columbia, believes more research is needed to examine the effects of school closures on students, families and communities.

“School closures often have huge impacts on communities,” she says. “In many communities the school is the heart of the community. To wrench it away, however one justifies it, can be devastating…. Sometimes the needs of the community may outweigh financial efficiency.”

With enrollment down in B.C.’s public schools, hundreds of school closures in B.C. during the past eight years have outraged the community, including recent protests at a public hearing about Vancouver’s 114-year-old Sir Guy Carleton Elementary School, one of the schools targeted to possibly close next June.

“By closing Carleton, you are saying you don’t care about our community,” a former Carleton student was quoted as saying in The Vancouver Sun, during one of the public consultation meetings the school board held with affected schools.

Vancouver School Closures

The issue has become so vitriolic that Premier Gordon Campbell shuffled his cabinet and installed a new education minister, George Abbott, described as “level-headed and conciliatory” by The Province in an editorial. The shakeup came in the wake of the feud between the B.C. government and Vancouver School Board chairwoman Patti Bacchus over school funds.

Furthermore, the process of deciding the closure of schools in B.C. is unbalanced, says Coulter. Financial power is centralized in a provincial government that determines the resources that school boards must work within and focuses largely on achieving efficiencies without sufficient concern for the legitimate purposes that local schools fulfill, including providing quality education to help children become good adults, he explains. “Public consultations with school communities are then really about which schools will be closed, not whether schools should be closed,” Coulter argues.

Though it’s easier said than done, the money appears to be there – it’s just not being allocated to save these schools with decreased enrollments.  At the same time the cash-strapped Vancouver School Board is closing schools to tackle a $17.2 million budget shortfall, B.C. is spending $424 million to introduce all-day kindergarten and considering early childhood education programs, The Globe and Mail reported. Surprisingly, the Vancouver School Board is getting $2.5 million more in funding to cope with 89 more students enrolled this year instead of the originally predicted decrease of 420 students, CBC News reported. Despite fears about the shrinking numbers of students, is it really necessary to close more schools when school populations are reportedly expected to peak again in a decade?

“If anything, school closures are evidence of underfunding on the part of the provincial government,” says Poole.

It’s also a matter of placing more importance on quality than quantity. The provincial government may have to rethink, or be more flexible, with the funding model that provides financial support for each school district in B.C. based on the number of students enrolled. Whenever possible, we urgently need to find ways to tackle budget cuts and financial efficiencies without uprooting school communities.

Still, the issue is not black and white.  School trustees are conserving and using resources in the most productive way in deciding to close certain schools with low enrollment numbers, says Charles Ungerleider, professor of sociology of education at the University of British Columbia and a former deputy minister of education for B.C.. It’s justified to close a school in cases when a school is only filled to partial capacity, devoting pricey heating, lighting and cleaning services to the “surplus” space, he says in an interview with Our Kids Media.

In the wake of the erosion of public school funding, private schools, which have reportedly seen an increase in enrollment in B.C., can be an excellent alternative as they tend to offer smaller classes and high academic standards. But unfortunately not everyone can qualify for financial support or afford to send their children there.

Regardless of the numbers involved with budgets and private school fees, quality education and the ability to keep school communities together should not only be a privilege, but a right for everyone. We need to treat children and schools not just as numbers, but as valuable communities and the key to healthy societies. We need to invest in education, our schools and our children, in every way we can.

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Is it right to close schools in the face of decreased enrollments and budget cuts? Join the debate by posting your comments below.

About Christl Dabu

Christl Dabu is the former editor at Our Kids Media (www.ourkids.net). Before her proverbial plane landed at Our Kids, she had worked as an editor at the Toronto Star, and she had been country-hopping in Egypt, China and some dozen other countries and 40 cities ... to Write, Edit and Travel. She encourages you to regularly check out the blog and the Our Kids Newsletter for parents and Dialogue Newsletter for educators for fresh web-exclusive content. Check out Our Kids on Facebook (www.facebook.com/ourkidsnet). Follow Our Kids (@ourkidsnet)and Christl (@ChristlJZDabu) on Twitter.

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