by Robert Laurie

The stakes involved in deciding to close or maintain small rural schools are very high indeed.

Parents and community leaders argue that shutting down rural schools effectively kills the heart of the community, and eventually the community itself. Government and educational leaders argue that students in rural areas don’t have the same quality education opportunities and services such as gyms, cafeterias, and school counselors as their peers in larger communities. They suggest that closing rural schools and ensuring that rural students receive these services in larger, and more distant, schools is the way to go.

Discussions about keeping rural communities viable and not sacrificing children’s education have been ongoing for years. These discussions are a classic case of thinking inside the proverbial box. Indeed, the thinking on this point is not only being done inside a box but inside one with very high walls. No wonder education departments in Atlantic Canada are finding it difficult to craft provincial policies that are perceived as fair to all small rural schools.

It’s high time to take a peek outside the box.

Consider for a moment a single hypothetical school with declining student enrolment. Can the school attract other students from elsewhere? While this may seem far-fetched, it may be totally realistic if we rid ourselves of the limits imposed by our box. What prevents a school from giving itself a particular identity – arts, science, sports, etc. – that would actually attract students from other neighbouring communities? How about offering on-line courses from that school and opening them up to the rest of the province, or country, or even the rest of the world? Rather than shuttling the community’s children elsewhere for their schooling, why not entice others to come? And why should this logic apply only to rural schools?

Another option available to communities that have schools with room to spare is to ensure that the extra space in the school is used for a variety of community activities. Integrating the school and community services such as libraries, health clinics, social services, recreation facilities, adult literacy groups and a host of other cultural and recreational services offered by the community under one roof makes sense socially and economically.

This would not only provide a one-stop-shopping service environment to the community but also help pay the bills to keep the heat and lights on so that the school can remain open. If schools are the lifeblood of the community, then the community must become the lifeblood of the schools.

In some cases, the actual building may be unsuitable to continue being used as a school. If this is the case, two options are possible. The first is to build a new building that would house not only the school but other community services, as mentioned previously. The second option is to move the school to another building, again with the idea of co-locating the school with other existing community services to keep operating costs down.

We must look differently at our buildings and start seeing them as potential places to educate our children. Many years ago, country schools operated as one-room school houses. We’re not advocating going back to this model, but if many private schools today can operate in church basements, surely we must broaden our thinking with regards to what a school should look like. Good education can, and does, happen in the absence of multimillion dollar facilities.

Despite these suggestions, none of this will happen as long as public education remains a highly centralized and sometimes dysfunctional system. There must be much more local school control than at present. Responsibility for the school must be placed in the hands of school principals, parents and community leaders. By allowing them to run their schools and be accountable for their actions and results, all children can benefit, regardless of the size of their community.

Governments have the power to implement such policies. Do they have the will?

For those who thrive on a centralized system such as the one we have now, there is no need to worry about losing power. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Government must even more clearly ensure that student performance standards are met and that all other accountability measures are adhered to rigorously. Government’s role is to ensure that services are delivered, rather than meddle in the process of delivering these services.

For their part, parents and community leaders must be willing to take control of their school so that they can respond to their children’s needs in a timely and efficient manner. And why shouldn’t they be allowed to, if their children achieve at the expected provincial standards? When people are empowered to take care of important issues such as their children’s education and the survival of their community, they rise to the challenge.

Despite all of this, there may very well be cases where some schools cannot be saved. Schools should not be artificially propped up at the expense of other services.

More importantly, schools should not be kept open at the expense of children’s education, notwithstanding the impact on the community.

Robert Laurie is the Director of Education Policy with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a non-partisan public policy think tank based in Halifax, N.S.