“Is it possible to save our school?”
That was the question, according to a recent report from localxpress.ca, posed by community member Tanya Tibbo a little over a week ago in the The Strait Area Education Recreation Centre (SAERC) auditorium in Port Hawkesbury. The question, asked in front of about 150 concerned community members, was directed at School Review Facilitator an event moderator, Bob MacEachern. At issue was the review of three schools operated by the Strait Regional School Board; SAERC, Tamarac Education Center (TEC), and Mulgrave Memorial Education Center (MMEC). It was this last school to which Ms. Tibbo was referring to as “our school”.
According to reporter Aaron Beswick, answers to such direct questions are often hard to come by.
The tale that is the agony of a small town wrestling with big decisions can be followed quite clearly on the Strait Regional School Board’s web page. The review of the three sites began in 2015 when the board, complying with new provincial regulations, set out to look at utilization rates of its schools versus their capacity. What it found was not encouraging. Half the schools served by the board were less than 60% full.
The board then had to consider its options to deal with declining revenues from declining enrolment. It decided to look at SAERC, operating at just 53% capacity, to see what could be done. SAERC has two feeder schools, TEC, operating at 80% capacity, and MMEC, which at the time was operating at 33%.
I believe Ms. Tibbo may have had the answer to her question before she even asked it.
To follow the documents on the board website is to watch the process unfold before your eyes. There were meetings and presentations, townhalls and discussions. There was also a call for proposals for the provincially approved “hub school” model, but there were, apparently, no offers. If you have followed the efforts of community groups in Maitland, River John and Wentworth, you understand why. The efforts of that particular group of Nova Scotians to keep their schools open was nothing less than super human.
And for my money, when it comes to the closure of small schools, therein lies the rub. In its own report on the school review process, the government acknowledged that “…there have been no examples to date where this model (hub) has succeeded in turning a financially unviable school into a viable one. The cases where this has worked in the past have resulted from proactive planning…, and not as a reactive attempt to save a school from closure.” One has to wonder, then, why it is that one of the few options available to small communities is a model that seems to have such a slim chance of succeeding.
Well, there is another option out there. One that has proven successful and has actually provided benefits to financially strapped school districts, without closing schools, and without impeding student achievement.
Cut the school week from five days to four.
I originally wrote about the idea of the four-day school week back in September of 2014. At the time, the idea seemed rather ephemeral to me, and really more of a daydream than anything else. However, as I found out more about the idea, I began to believe that it might be worth exploring at least. Last winter I re-floated the idea. And when I look at the current state of rural education in Nova Scotia, I think I am becoming more and more convinced that the idea is worth a shot.
The premise is quite simple, really. Instead of going to school from Monday to Friday, kids attend from Monday to Thursday, with instructional time added onto each of those days. How much time becomes a matter of negotiation, of course, as the math can become quite complex. Things like statutory holidays and professional development days need to be considered in the mix, but there are hundreds of other jurisdictions who have already adopted the practice.
The transition is not always easy, and it does require a fair amount of cooperation and consideration. And, in the name of transparency, not everyone believes this is a good idea. However, financial benefits are almost immediate. There are savings in transportation fuel costs, as well as in maintenance, since busses make fewer trips per year. Savings can also be realized in property services, which includes such things as heating and lighting. Finally, a number of jurisdictions, after switching to the four-day week, have reported reduced sick time expenditures, a heavy financial burden for any employer.
As far as student achievement is concerned, there is good news on that front as well. In July of 2015, a study out of MIT found that “…there is little evidence that moving to a four-day week compromises student academic achievement.” An earlier study out of George State and Montana State Universities suggested that student achievement might actually be positively affected by the switch. There is also some evidence that suggests that both student discipline and attendance are positively impacted when jurisdictions go to four days.
As to students missing school for snow and PD days, the four-day school week can work in their favour. If a school is closed on Tuesday for a storm, it simply opens up for school on Friday. Professional development days can also, presumably with some negotiation, be scheduled to reduce interruptions to learning.
There is even the added benefit of students taking one less extended school bus ride per week.
As for childcare, situations will vary. For some, paying for childcare on Friday may well be an added expense. For others, having older siblings home on Friday could result in actually paying less money. As well, since the kids are getting home later, the expense for after school care, may again, decrease.
Rather makes one wonder why this solution doesn’t even seem to be on the radar.
Now, I do recognize this, for some, represents a seismic shift in thinking. But, when looking at our current reality, Nova Scotia needs to think seismically. When we consider the future of this province, what does closing schools actually achieve? Do we really believe that closing schools is somehow going to make the future brighter? Is the closing of schools going to turn the province around?
Here’s the thing we need to consider. There are three things that can happen to any community. People can decide to come, people can decide to stay, or people can decide to leave. Closing schools only contributes to one of these three options. If we want people to move here, and we want them to stay, we need to give them a reason to do so. And, I’m sorry to say, we are a long way from those reasons including the words “booming economy“.
Until they do, words like “community school“, “reasonable class size“, “individualized attention” and yes, “four-day school week” will go a heck of a lot farther towards making things better than the words “School closed“.
I am not sure that there is any way to save MMEC. Indeed, there may be no way to save many small schools just like it. But consider this. Once these schools close, where do boards turn to for savings? There will always, unfortunately, be a “smallest school”. Without a shift in thinking, the rest of us may simply be waiting our turn.
Before we head too far down that road, a four-day school week might be worth a very serious look indeed.
Authors note: Many of you have been asking where to get a copy of my new book “It’s a Blog’s Life”. Simply click the link on the top of this page, then click on the book itself to order. Cheers!