Conventional notions challenged

Bigger isn’t better, but neither is smaller, necessarily.

Some education analysts in Nova Scotia are calling for sweeping changes to the way the province approaches school size and closures.

The trend of closing smaller schools and building supersized facilities in their place is ill-advised, says Charles Cirtwill, president and CEO of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a think-tank based in Halifax.

“Our urge to centralize for efficiency’s sake, to build ever bigger schools and just put kids on buses, to me, makes no sense,” Cirtwill said in an interview Friday.

But he doesn’t necessarily yearn for the days of the one-room schoolhouse, either. In fact, he doesn’t believe we always need a traditional school of any sort.

He points to a number of non-traditional arrangements in the United States and Western Canada, where pupils attend class in church basements, malls, homes and online.

Broadening the conventional notion of school, he said, could be useful in Nova Scotia, where small schools scattered across rural areas often end up facing closure.

According to last year’s enrolment figures, 20 schools in the province had fewer than 45 students, and each of those schools costs tens of thousands of dollars to operate and maintain.

In some provinces, such as Alberta, communities can come together and decide what type of school or program they desire and then approach the board for approval, Cirtwill said.

“We have to flip the process on its head and start with the community conversation and then go to the board and the department about how they’re going to meet those needs,” he said.

Paul Bennett, a Halifax-based education analyst, said he’d like to see a holistic examination of the province’s education system, incorporating school size, class size and the number and size of school boards.

“The decisions that are made at the local level are to either close the school or keep it open indefinitely,” Bennett said. “There’s never reorganization, partnerships, there’s not enough collaboration with other community groups. So the schools sit there half-empty and it’s not properly utilized.”

Bennett contrasts Nova Scotia’s haphazard approach to school closures with that of Prince Edward Island, which consolidated two-thirds of its schools between 1966 and 1970.

While Bennett doesn’t advocate closing all of Nova Scotia’s smaller schools, he believes there could be some benefit from a large-scale review of how the province delivers education.

“I think we need ideas, vision and innovation at the centre,” he said. “But there’s been a tendency to leave too much to the boards.”

And those boards often focus on the cost of maintaining small schools to the exclusion of other factors, Bennett said.

Liberal education critic Karen Casey agrees that the province should step back and take a big-picture view of the system.

“I think there needs to be a comprehensive review of how we deliver our public school programs, where we deliver it, what the conditions are, recognizing that we are a rural province and (that we have) some very small schools and some very local roads and poor driving conditions and all of those things,” Casey said. “It has to be part of the decision. We can’t just use numbers.”

At Pleasant Bay School, which is located just outside the northwestern boundary of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, the lone teacher only has to read six names to complete the roll call.

The teacher multi-tasks, teaching English, science, music, art, physical education and all other components of the curriculum for the six kids in four different grades. The school’s bus driver doubles as the janitor.

Peter Goosens, who is in name the principal of the school but spends most of his time acting as principal of Cape Breton Highlands Education Centre/Academy, says the tiny school is essential in a community where the nearest school is about 45 minutes away on roads that can turn treacherous in winter weather.

The students have a sense of belonging and pride in their school and community and benefit from the individual attention they receive in their small class, Goosens said.

And then, of course, there are the whales.

“(The students’) experience is more nature-oriented because Mother Nature is right there in the national park,” he said.

“The outdoor lab is right there. You look up from the parking lot and you see whales going by. These kind of experiences enrich them.”