Well, the annual summer pack up of classrooms is over, and for some, this is a sad time of the year indeed. Despite the downright heroic efforts of a few small community groups, a few small community schools have heard their death knell sounded, and, barring a major miracle, will soon be closed for good.
The announcement of the final fate of the schools in Maitland, River John and Wentworth a few weeks ago came as no surprise to outside observers, although the overall disappointment expressed in the decision was certainly well founded. The hub model, although existing in a variety of forms, is primarily about servicing communities, not fiscal viability. Saving these schools was not about saving the buildings, but about sustaining communities, and attaching a price tag of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to the efforts of some civic-minded citizens groups seemed not only unfair, but downright impossible.
The Ivany report, for what it lacked in substance, called for Nova Scotia to do things differently, but it is hard to see this government’s penchant for rewording curriculum documents and closing small schools as anything other than more of the same. The Minister of Education does seem quite happy with her Action Plan, but I believe she is missing the forest for the trees. Her edicts of education will certainly impact teachers, but so far as I can tell, will do little to impact the Province.
And for my money, this is where current efforts are falling short.
You see, even as some of these small citizens groups continue to fight what I fear is a hopeless battle, there seems to be no appetite to look at those schools as anything other than a liability. And there is a very important message for us all here. When these buildings close, there will be a new “smallest school” in the Province. Then another. Then another. The trend of closing schools and sounding a death knell for rural communities will continue, unless something is done.
But what is that “something”?
Well, I believe that we may have part of that answer right under our noses.
I have often said that one of the greatest and most under exploited resources we have here in Nova Scotia is our education system. Statistically speaking, we, as a province, are exceptionally well equipped in the area of post secondary expertise. Certainly, the vast majority of us live within an hour of at least one college or University. So what if, when looking at rural revitalization, we looked at expanding the reach of those institutions?
Consider, if you will, a small, rural area like my old stomping grounds of Richmond County, in Cape Breton. On the surface, things seem pretty grim. There is little in the way of economic development, the population is aging and out-migrating, and the only industry of any size, the local pulp mill, is hanging on by a thread. However, it does have a high school, a number of smaller schools, at least three health care facilities that I can think of, and is within an hour’s drive of several significant educational institutions including an NSCC campus, St. F.X. University and Cape Breton University.
It has teachers, nurses, schools and hospitals.
What if a local University started training nurses there?
Now, I use nurses only as an example, of course. I know absolutely nothing about that profession other than I like most nurses I have met and I have nurses in my family. But what I am proposing here is a model based on the idea of the satellite campus, where larger schools support smaller programs in less densely populated areas. The idea of satellite campuses as economic generators is certainly nothing new, and indeed, last year Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne launched a rather large-scale “satellite” campaign. Committing to increase the number of post secondary seats in that province by as many as 60,000, she asked colleges and universities to put together proposals to open satellite campuses across the province, citing both a need for more post secondary seats and the economic benefits that such campuses could bring to smaller areas.
Education, of course, can be a tremendous economic engine. Towns like Wolfville and Antigonish are often referred to as “recession proof” because of their respective Universities. I was recently speaking to a colleague who owns some rental properties in Cape Breton who benefits from his proximity to CBU and a steady stream of international students who need a place to stay. The upswell in interest in education dollars has resulted in a burgeoning competition for students on a global scale, with several international jurisdictions vying to become international education hubs.
With all the evidence pointing to the notion that education is good business, could we not explore the potential here? Even small numbers of students moving into an area could have a huge economic, not to mention social and cultural, impact.
Now, there are of course a plethora of problems that would arise if we tried to apply this model to rural Nova Scotia. The opening of satellite programs in these areas would not be without cost, and there is, of course, the issue of faculty. But what if we took an even bolder view. Could we not further examine the resources of the community to see what it has to offer?
Local high schools could perhaps serve as campuses. Empty classrooms and computer labs, some of which sit idle for hours at a time, could be used as teaching spaces. Teachers, many of whom hold Master’s degrees and already live in these communities, could offer University level courses. Professional staff, like nurses, again from the area, could be to trained and certified as instructors in their respective fields. And, finally, the program could be supported by the academic expertise of any number of colleges or universities, all within driving distance.
The idea seems to at least be within the realm of possibility. Pair it with a series of government backed initiatives like reduced tuition to draw students into these areas and perhaps the re-introduction of the graduate retention rebate to entice them to stay, and we might just have the start of something.
Now, much like my suggestion that Nova Scotia should move to a four day school week, this idea is just that; an idea. I know little about post-secondary training outside of the realm of education. Unlike the four-day school week, unfortunately, there is no model of success to follow. And even I must admit that this idea is a tad more, how shall I put it, ephemeral?
However, if keeping rural communities alive is the goal, it seems to me that we need to make bold and innovative decisions. We need to leverage the resources that already exist within our communities in ways we have never even considered, and which may, indeed, fall under the category of “never tried before”. As the newly created “Engage Nova Scotia” initiative points out, it is time to change attitudes and adapt to new ideas.
If we don’t, then schools will continue to close, communities will continue to die, and governments will continue to ask the people of Nova Scotia to “do things differently”, all the while patting themselves on the back for doing things in the same old way.
It may indeed be too late for the communities of River John, Maitland and Wentworth, although I, for one, am not counting them out just yet. But the closing of these small schools should serve as a message to all Nova Scotians. The Minister can talk about her “four pillars of education” all she wants, but the true pillars of this Province are its rural roots.
And even the healthiest of trees will inevitably topple if its roots are permitted to rot.
Author’s Note: I must provide a bit of an addendum to this piece. It has been brought to my attention that there is, indeed, a satellite campus already operating in Richmond County. L’Université Sainte-Anne has a site in Petit-de-Grat. Thank you to Robert Fougère for pointing out the omission.