Special Report: Education

School Boards Reflect Our Cultural Priorities

If we want neighbourhood schools that kids can walk to, we need to build and maintain neighbourhoods where people walk.

By Sean Hurley
Published August 25, 2014

The Hamilton Spectator published a letter to the editor by Michael Barrett, president of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association. In his letter, Mr. Barrett wrote, "Trustees live in the community, are of the community and are for the community."

Many would disagree. A comment under the letter reads:

If trustees understood and cared about local needs, they wouldn't have supported closing neighbourhood schools in favour on mega schools. They don't care about how local communities are affected, because they supported pulling the schools out of some communities.

In Hamilton, as in cities throughout Ontario, school boards are cutting costs by consolidating schools, closing them in well-established neighbourhoods.

The schools being closed are not simply buildings. They are places that become part of the fabric of the community. Their walls encompass not only a past that was often rewarding and memorable to those who walked through the hallway and learned in the rooms, but also a future for neighbourhoods struggling to revitalize or remain vibrant and alive.

"Today, many home buyers with children focus their home search exclusively on school quality." So says a blogger at Move Smartly, which describes itself as "the Toronto neighbourhoods and real estate blog".

Meanwhile, over at MSN Real Estate, we're told, "If a cash-strapped city or town closes a neighborhood school, that can easily steer home values south," in their list of "7 neighborhood threats to your home's value".

Intuitively we know that a neighbourhood without a school will enter into a slow decline. Such neighbourhoods are less likely to attract or keep young families or those hoping to start families.

Clearly there are economic, social and emotional reasons for wanting to retain neighbourhood schools. Consequently, it is no surprise that closing a school will generate such charged and often angry debates.

But I believe a lot of this anger is misplaced.

Michael Barrett is correct. School trustees are not alien to the communities they serve. They are democratically elected and they are accountable to their communities. No trustee has ever campaigned on a mandate to close neighbourhood schools.

What happens on the journey between electing members of the community to the school board and the closing of schools within those same communities? Nothing.

School boards reflect our cultural priorities. When we build car-centric cities - places that prioritize the automobile's movement across far flung landscapes of low density, monoculture housing, and sacrifice natural topography to accommodate the car's size and speed - we can almost guarantee that school boards will be "closing neighbourhood schools in favour of mega schools."

Preserving or re-establishing neighbourhood schools becomes far more likely in a city where the cultural priorities are human-scaled, where people move across places with a diversity of uses, and where places are linked together by transit and roads that respect all modes of transportation.

The cultural priorities we embrace when we build our neighbourhoods and plan for schools is expressed through political policy. If we wish to change the priorities and the policy we must elect not just the trustees but the municipal council who will reflect our values.

If we want neighbourhood schools that kids can walk to, we need to build and maintain neighbourhoods where people walk.

If we fail to do so, if we return a status quo council that pushes for more lanes to open more greenfields and brags about being able to get across and out of Hamilton in just twenty minutes, then the proper target for our anger over school closings is ourselves.

We get the government we elect.

19 Comments

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By RobF (registered) | Posted August 25, 2014 at 09:32:49

I thought the main reason we're closing schools to build mega-ones was a provincial capital funding formula that favors building new schools over retrofitting or upgrading existing buildings. Also, we persist in thinking that schools be single-purpose facilities even though we know that enrollments go up and down based on neighbourhood life-cycle change.

Comment edited by RobF on 2014-08-25 09:40:24

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By killenl@amtelecom.net (registered) | Posted August 25, 2014 at 10:57:30

School Boards reflect our cultural priorities!

I wish to compliment the author of this well thought out and non-judgemental piece.

Well done!

Larry killens - Public School Trustee

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By ViennaCafe (registered) | Posted August 25, 2014 at 11:09:37

Thank you for the comment, RobF. I agree the funding formula is an important part of the equation. However, I think it is fair to argue that rural and inner city schools have faced the lion's share of closures and both, rural and inner city, are faced with similar challenges in terms of aging populations and a migration of young people to suburban and exurban communities. But I think the crux of my argument is that even in suburban communities, if we build walkable neighbourhoods, with the current funding model, we can have walkable, neighbourhood schools. For example:

"Mount Pleasant Village, built by Mattamy Homes, sits in the city’s northwest: a community with 1,300 dwellings. It’s suburban living completely re-thought: You can take your kids to school, visit the library, get your hair cut, sip a latte, grab your dry cleaning, and get on to the local commuter train – all within a five-minute walk of your home."

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/nati...

"Mount Pleasant Village Public School is a new school, nestled behind the GO station. The community is designed to be a "walking community" with access to public transit and local shops built close by."

http://www.peelschools.org/schools/Pages...

It can be done.

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By jason (registered) | Posted August 25, 2014 at 22:51:03 in reply to Comment 104149

I still don't see how closing schools in urban neighbourhoods that have functioned for over 100 years in the same manner as described in that promo piece, benefits anyone. So they build a new school in a new community that is trying to copy the old community that has already existed for decades and had a school for decades. Let's just leave the school in the 100 year old neighbourhood where people can go the library, sip a latte, use transit etc.... Or does that not benefit the homebuilders if we do that?

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By Joshua (registered) | Posted September 19, 2014 at 14:19:50 in reply to Comment 104159

I don't think it does benefit the development industry. Bear in mind that members of our municipal council have been meeting sub rosa with the development industry for some time, according to a recent Hamilton Citizens At City Hall article, Inside track for lobby group (http://hamiltoncatch.org/view_article.php?id=1299). There is less money to be made, I believe, in the occasional employment of skills for home repair and re-building, as well as the self-reliance that can be built by attempting to do things within the limits of one's own community, drawing on those resources and people who can help you.

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By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted August 26, 2014 at 09:16:02 in reply to Comment 104159

Yeah, its funny how the way neighbourhoods worked for over 100 years is being described as if its a completely novel new iteration on suburbia. 'suburban living completely re-thought' ...to mimic urban living.

Also, the use of quotations, as if "walking community" is an avant guard concept or an inscrutable, trademarked architectural theory that we only discovered by our modern intelligence. Nope, that's just how humans have lived since the dawn of time, and how they still live in the majority of the world.

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By RobF (registered) | Posted August 26, 2014 at 15:48:12 in reply to Comment 104163

AnjoMan, they aren't proposing something to mimic urban living (at least not in the sense we usually mean). The main street by the school and GO Station is called Commuter Drive, which is telling (like when Vaughan labeled their proposed "downtown" at the end of the York subway extension the "Corporate Centre" ... it was later changed to the "Vaughan Metropolitan Centre").

Really, Mount Pleasant Village owes its lineage to the mainline suburbs/commuter railroad towns found outside New York and Philadephia in the late-19th century(see Robert Fishman's classic suburban history "Bourgeois Utopias"). Fishman consider these the "classic" or "true" suburbs. In the contemporary sense, the design appropriates aspects of Peter Calthorpe's "Pedestrian Pocket" TOD designs, but it doesn't include much mixed-use from what i can tell (it is a compromised or partial form of TOD).

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By ItJustIs (registered) | Posted August 25, 2014 at 15:58:38

At the risk of veering from the intent of the article, I offer up this link:

http://www.upworthy.com/a-town-eliminate...

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted August 25, 2014 at 21:40:10 in reply to Comment 104151

Let's go one better. A school in suburban Ontario (specifically Milton) that prevents children from being driven to school.

Comment edited by KevinLove on 2014-08-25 21:40:28

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By Did it work? (anonymous) | Posted August 27, 2014 at 19:01:44 in reply to Comment 104157

Just asking, but since that article is from 2010, and it clearly states it was a pilot for a year, did it work?

Another question: how do you forbid someone from dropping a child off?

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By RobF (registered) | Posted August 25, 2014 at 16:52:10

I think the crux of my argument is that even in suburban communities, if we build walkable neighbourhoods, with the current funding model, we can have walkable, neighbourhood schools.

Isn't that a tautological argument. I thought the piece was about school closures. You can build walkable neighbourhoods and still have school closures.

As an aside they designed neighbourhoods with walkable, neighbourhood schools in most postwar suburbs, at least in Metro Toronto. The problem wasn't that children couldn't walk to public school, it was that everything else was designed to be driven to.

As for Mount Pleasant Village ... this is the developer's marketing pitch. The design is basically sprawl integrated with a GO station. Look at the maps for the rest of the development ... townhomes and houses on smallish lots (30' to 38' wide ... i live on a 24' lot in the lower city), but no real mixed-use planned. It certainly won't be walkable in the sense that urbanist use the term to imply.

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By ViennaCafe (registered) | Posted August 25, 2014 at 17:26:34 in reply to Comment 104153

I thought my argument was fairly well defined right at the top: "If we want neighbourhood schools that kids can walk to, we need to build and maintain neighbourhoods where people walk."

And in fact you seem to get that when you acknowledge, "The problem wasn't that children couldn't walk to public school, it was that everything else was designed to be driven to." That is the point and it is the cultural priorities of our elected governments at both the local and provincial level.

I don't disagree with you that Mount Pleasant Village is not an ideal urban development, but it does demonstrate that we can have neighbourhood schools serviced by sidewalks within the current funding model.

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By RobF (registered) | Posted August 25, 2014 at 20:01:05 in reply to Comment 104154

I suppose i could put it differently ... I share with you a preference for building walkable neighbourhoods, but from experience and study I don't agree with your statement: If we want neighbourhood schools that kids can walk to, we need to build and maintain neighbourhoods where people walk. The planned neighbourhood unit, the idea that shaped modern suburban environments, was designed with children walking to schools and parks in mind. The idea couldn't and didn't deal with the problem of driving everywhere else, because at the time it wasn't seen as a problem. That came later. The link you are making between school closures, walkable neighborhoods, and walkable neighbourhood schools is a thin one. That doesn't mean we shouldn't shrive to build or retrofit neighbourhoods to be "walkable" in the urbanist sense. I just think it doesn't get at what's happening re: the loss of our schools. (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/ontario-needs-strong-downtown-schools-not-education-factories/article12882443/)

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By RobF (registered) | Posted August 25, 2014 at 19:06:54 in reply to Comment 104154

I get what you are saying ... my point is that "walking" and "walkable" aren't the same thing. People walk in all manner of suburbs, but that doesn't mean they walk or take transit to work or to get groceries -- or the experience of walking is the same. I'm puzzled about your final comment ... i've studied the planning, politics, and development of postwar suburbs. I can't think of many examples, at least in Toronto or Vancouver, where schools aren't serviced by sidewalks. That is the norm.

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By randomguy (anonymous) | Posted August 26, 2014 at 02:47:00

Part of the problem is that while we spend plenty on education, the vast majority gets spent on salaries and pensions. Didn't the education minister recently announce that while there will be no new money, if savings could be found there could be raises. Hopefully the savings won't come from deferring school maintenance, but it wouldn't surprise me.

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By scrap (anonymous) | Posted August 26, 2014 at 03:00:06

Good article but too politically correct for my tastes. If there was one trustee that is against these policies, I ask where are their voices?

I find that we get endless promises of change and we get the Borg mentality. Resistance is futile!!

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By Kevin (registered) | Posted August 27, 2014 at 23:09:54

There are, I believe, over 70 school boards in Ontario. There is also the Ministry, the Ontario College of Teachers, QECO, EQAO, ETFO, trustees, consultants… and on and on. I would estimate that for every classroom teacher in the province there is a highly paid “educator,” who never sees a child.

The HWDSB, despite declining enrolment, just built a 50 million dollar palace for 400 administrative staff, who refused to be in Hamilton’s neediest community. Their cushy lifestyle, glitzy new digs, and generous compensation comes at the expense of the neediest and most vulnerable children in the system.

A woman I know, who is a classroom teacher, told me she wants to get a job at the board office because, “There is nothing to do.”

By their actions, the HWDSB has said to its students, loudly and clearly, “I don’t give a crap about you. Me first.” What has happened to Canadians, when those who’ve positioned themselves to forge the next generation expect to be well paid to do nothing? What are they teaching at that costly board office?

To my mind, however, the most cynical, corrupt, caustic action in public education, recently, has been the imposition of Discovery Math on our unsuspecting population. (It is called Common Core in the US). We spend billions on B.S. textbooks, manipulatives, and “experts,” like “Dr.” Marian Small. A school board in Seattle went to court to fight the state’s imposition of Common Core Math. The judge ruled with the city, declaring Discovery Math “capricious and confusing.” A Math professor in Manitoba called Discovery Math “academic child abuse.”

En masse, parents are paying for private tutors, so their kids learn basic Math. Again, what happens to the less fortunate, who have no alternative to the nonsense? Everyone in Ontario should take a good look at “Discovery Math” and demand their child’s teacher, administrator, school board, minister, premier … abandon it immediately.

Not that they’ll listen.

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By HamiltonBrian (registered) | Posted August 29, 2014 at 14:41:23 in reply to Comment 104186

Kevin, let me first say, as a teacher with HWDSB, I agree with your comment regarding the actions of the hierarchy sending the message that they "don't give a crap." I don't think it is as simple as that, BUT, I do feel that most trustees and upper management have operated in a very short-sighted manner. As soon as the board turfed the proposal to work with the city in finding a better-suited location for the Board of Ed building (...why not rent the vacant space down in Jackson Square/Stelco?) I fired off a letter to Judith Bishop. I concluded by letting her know I would actively campaign so that she would not retain that trustee position. Thankfully, she has decided not to run again, and I think there are potentially good candidates to take her place. But Judith, obviously, is one person on that council.

Regarding your acquaintance that wants to get a job at the board office...shame on her. There a lot of members in my profession who have decided to mail it in, check out, etc. Those of us that bust our asses to be the best teachers we can be for a group of students/school each year, have to endure the public backlash as a result of our "checked-out" colleagues.

Anyway, I will take exception to "Discovery Math." This is actually the first time I've heard it called that. The trend in education, and you may argue against it, is to teach students not what the right answer is, but how to arrive at "answers," look for alternative possibilities, and be able to justify decisions. Numeracy/Math seems like it should be all about the "correct answer." I don't want to get into a long pedantic screed on why I feel that "problem-solving" is a suitable way to teach mathematical thinking. The frustration, as a parent, is that it is the simple operations that children lack the comfort with. I get that. And that's why there needs to be a balance in instruction. Teach multiple pathways to arrive at an answer, develop a sense of what's right for "you" at that particular time, then abandon it when an even more efficient/accurate strategy presents itself. As a teacher, I defend "discovery," but the message that hasn't been widely spread is "balance it."

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By hwlgwdkjn (anonymous) | Posted August 29, 2014 at 22:44:25

Billowing audience beyond the keep, seems to be very patio umbrella cried, rips sliding off the road along ticking, as being a atmosphere brimming with rainwater.
Town rulers probably a southern garden paranoia , may have secretly vowed to transform the town into a large garden. Each built into a road or a cell is always completed immediately began planning his planting , peripherals is lawn, shrubs and a variety of shapes , and then there is the evergreen or deciduous trees, and even deserted road also hold too . I look forward to the future with him often Huaxiangniaoyu town , but more are seeing those just planted grass , bamboo, wood , or other names for various reasons, yellow, withered and died. Sometimes barely alive , but also laying a pipeline from what I do not know where transport to where , and the pan-green grass and dig just a heap mud. So farmerist flooding , actually distressed them .
When we all point out that individuals have no idea any time younger really like can easily mature exactly why we all misplaced inside really like.
yql2014

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