Special Report: Education

Serious Concerns About School Accommodation Review Process

When parents feel like their concerns have not been listened to or addressed, they will disengage. This will only lead to a negative result in our schools.

By Amanda Kleinhuis
Published October 17, 2013

Regarding the impending closures of Sir John A. Macdonald Secondary School, Delta Secondary School and Parkview Secondary School and the proposed construction of a new high school for the North cluster:

I am a parent of three children who attend Bennetto School, which currently feeds into Sir John A. MacDonald Secondary School (SJAM), but as of 2016 will be a feeder school for Westdale Secondary. I am also the Chair of the School Council at the school but I am writing this on my own, not on behalf of the School Council.

I want to express the concerns that I have around the North ARC process (which I expect reflects the processes of other ARCs) and my hopes regarding the decisions that the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) and Trustees, Ontario Ministry of Education and Councillors of the City of Hamilton make going forward.

First, my concerns about the ARC process:

Inadequate Public Consultation

Because of the Secondary Program Strategy Consultation that happened earlier this year I spent a good deal of time speaking with parents about the proposed changes and how they would impact our families.

I sought reactions from parents to gauge whether or not they were happy with being moved to Westdale or if they'd like to petition the school board to move the boundary so that we could be part of the New North High School; I wanted their feedback on the proposed programming changes; and I wanted to encourage them to be involved in the public consultation and let their voices be heard.

Among several concerns and questions that I heard from parents was a very strong desire to see SJAM remain open. These parents, myself included, did not feel that they had been consulted, and had not been aware of opportunities for consultation.

I have read that information was on the HWDSB website and in the Hamilton Spectator, but no information was given to parents through the elementary school. The highest number of attendance at the Public ARC meetings was 37. (To the board's credit, public consultation was carried out more effectively for the recent Secondary Program Strategy.)

2. Motivation and Funding Structure

I have read through all of the minutes for each of the North ARC committee and public meetings in order to have a better grasp on the mandate given to the committee and the various options and concerns that they dealt with through the process. My sense is that the decisions of the ARC were largely motivated by funding.

By closing three schools the HWDSB would have a strong case with the Ministry of Education to receive full funding for a new school. It appears from these decisions that the Ministry's funding framework promotes the closure of schools and building new buildings rather than of looking at cost-effective ways of keeping schools open.

I do not recall seeing any reports from engineers or architects about the possibility of the renewal of existing schools, only a chart showing the total dollar value of all repairs needed.

Maybe the construction of a brand-new school was not the best option, though it be most likely to receive funding. Are there not many arguments for the maintenance of current properties, rather than this cycle of closing, selling, and building new?

Why does the Ministry of Education not support the upkeep and renewal of our existing schools with as much enthusiasm as building new schools? It does not appear that the ARC allowed for serious consideration of the viability of maintaining current properties.

This article outlines what should be considered in making the decision to renovate a school or build new.

Did the ARC consider moving "Tier 3" programs to the underpopulated schools - which could also serve to ease the strain on overpopulated schools like Saltfleet and Westdale?

3. The value of existing schools and established communities

All evidence presented during the ARC and since points to Parkview being an extremely successful school. The students, parents, and staff are highly engaged and passionate, qualities that are missing in other schools. Why change something that is working so well?

Instead of closing Parkview, it should have become a model school. Now, amid debates about where to place a new building these families are in limbo, unsure about what will happen.

Delta is the oldest secondary school in Hamilton. We, as a society, have decided that history and heritage are important to us. This is why we have heritage designations for buildings, for good or bad. Can the Ministry and the school board not see the value in protecting the valuable history in this building, the stories it holds, the strength in the very fact that it has managed to exist for so long?

I am not just talking about a heritage designation. I am talking about reinforcing to students and to our population that history is important, and that older things can still be useful and renewed. We are attracted to shiny new things, whether new schools or the newest iPhone, and have a tendency to neglect things that are old or out-of-date, to the point where they can't be saved, and are seen as no longer useful.

Is this a sustainable way to live? Is it an appropriate philosophy on which to base important decisions?

SJAM, an inner-city school that does face many challenges, is seen as incredibly valuable by a large portion of the population. Their arts program has been lauded as highly successful. The fact that they are the only secondary school in the core of Hamilton should be given more value than it has.

Aside from the symbolic value of having this institution in our downtown alongside the Central Library, Hamilton Farmer's Market, and City Hall, there is also economic value in having that many students and teachers in that vicinity. The economic impact of the closure of this school on businesses in Jackson Square will be hard-felt.

A school is more than a building - it is a place where community develops. When the physical school moves further away from the community it serves, the people will feel less connected to the school, particularly parents. They will become disengaged, and this will have a negative impact on student achievement.

4. Short-term versus Long-term planning

One common criticism of the HWDSB is that its decisions are short-sighted. Scott Park was just closed 12 years ago, sold nine years ago, and now the board is considering buying it back.

Is the board being short-sighted again? The ARC took place in 2011 and only considered enrollment projections for 10 years from that date. Population projection data [PDF; see page 59) published by the Ontario Ministry of Finance indicates that after a decline in youth aged 15-19 for the next few years there will again be growth so that by 2036 the number of youth in this category is expected to be higher than it is today.

5. Increased barriers for Students

Another point that I feel has not been adequately addressed by the board is the distance students are having to travel to arrive at school.

The term "Code Red" was used many times during the ARC, in reference to a study on poverty in the lower city. Most of the neighbourhoods affected by the school closures and boundary changes are "Red" neighbourhoods. Statistically Delta and SJAM have high rates of absenteeism, low graduation rates, and students who come from homes with low income levels.

With the closure of three schools, even with a centrally-located school, more students will have to travel longer distances to school. When a child is already at risk of skipping school, forcing them to travel further to get there will only increase the risk as it will be more difficult for them to get to school.

It would take the average person about 45 minutes to walk 3.2 km - a long walk for a teen who may already be unmotivated to go to school. (Studies show that most people are willing to walk to a destination if it will take 30 minutes or less.) Many families may not be able to drive their child to school, and also may not have extra money to pay for bus tickets.

This study on school absence cites "No Safe Path to School" and "Poor Transportation" as contributing to absenteeism (slide 12).

In addition to these barriers, some of the students will now be expected to walk to Westdale. Coming from the East, there is no way to get to Westdale without crossing Hwy 403 via Main Street West or King Street West, which would mean crossing busy on- or off-ramps regardless of which side of the street they walk on, at busy times of the day.

This is not a safe or reasonable way to get our kids to school.

6. Lack of a unified approach

The City of Hamilton and the HWDSB need to work in cooperation. I noted that City councillors were absent from every North ARC meeting. I understand that there may have been conflicts with the time of the meeting. How much effort was made to accommodate the busy schedules of the councillors?

Is it any surprise that the City has voted not to participate in a joint community centre/high school project with HWDSB when they were not part of the planning process? We need to have a unified vision for the future of our city.

Moving Forward

It has become apparent at the September 16 and 23 Standing Committee meetings that the Board is by no means unified on the matter of the new high school. The public cannot be confident in decisions made by our elected trustees if the Trustees themselves aren't confident in their decisions.

Perhaps this lack of unity is due in part to the fact that the trustees have their hands tied by the Ministry funding. HWDSB has been awarded $32 Million to build a new school in the lower city, which must be open by 2016. This does not leave much time for the sourcing and acquisition of the best possible piece of property for a school, demolition of current structures, or design and construction of a completely brand-new school.

I applaud the Trustees for their decision to table the motion regarding the location of the new school in order to gather more information on which to base an informed decision. I also appreciate the dedication of the Trustees for their strong desire to see the new building placed as centrally-located to the students as possible.

In this and in future decisions it is vital that the public is adequately consulted, and that the board consider the varying needs of communities. The community needs to know that their voice matters and that their needs are being considered.

For the communities that feel their needs have not been met, I hope the board will be willing to listen to and address their concerns. The children of engaged parents are more likely to succeed in school.

When parents feel like their concerns have not been listened to or addressed, they will disengage. This will only lead to a negative result in our schools.

Amanda Kleinhuis was born and raised in Lindsay Ontario, but moved to Hamilton to attend Redeemer University in 1995. After falling in love with her husband Mike, she also fell in love with Hamilton and now spends most of her time as an at-home mom to their three children in the North End of Hamilton.

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By RobF (registered) | Posted October 17, 2013 at 10:58:57

The ARC process doesn't really work as consultation. What's going to happen has largely been decided before any consultation takes place: schools are going to close. The ARC process, sadly, doesn't seem to allow for much deviation from that basic reality.

Yes the process is largely driven by funding/fiscal concerns ... that's how things work now that being "competitive" (keeping taxes low) and "austerity" (reducing the cost and scope of public services) guides public policy.

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By jmcg (anonymous) | Posted October 17, 2013 at 15:50:50

I agree with statement of facts of HWDSB secrecy and in camera meeting.Voice your opinions at Standing committee meeting Oct. 21 2013 6.oo pm. 2013.Request a oral presentation HWDSB (Heather Miller)before Friday noon.Voice of our students.John McGREAL

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By lawrence (registered) - website | Posted October 17, 2013 at 15:51:16

This piece seems to about cover it all. Thanks for writing this Amanda.

I agree with RobF that we are likely not going to change their mind. They are going to close a lot of schools. 'You' might be able to save your own child's school, but it just means another school is going to be closed instead.

You had me at this:

All evidence presented during the ARC and since points to Parkview being an extremely successful school. The students, parents, and staff are highly engaged and passionate, qualities that are missing in other schools. Why change something that is working so well?

Instead of closing Parkview, it should have become a model school. Now, amid debates about where to place a new building these families are in limbo, unsure about what will happen.

I agree wholeheartedly.

I'd like to see everyone jump on board this doc to add their creative solutions to keeping our schools open. I think people are tired of begging the board. It's time to give them no alternative.

This is THE most important discussion happening in our city, across Canada, the US, and maybe the world as I haven't looked that far.

It seems to have The Big Move all over it ie. jamming our transit with more student riders.

It's time for "The Big Stay" movement.

Comment edited by lawrence on 2013-10-17 15:53:38

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By Simon (registered) - website | Posted October 17, 2013 at 17:11:11

Another major failing of the ARC process is that is pits schools against each other in a fight to the death. If the board says your school is slated for closure - your ARC members fight tooth and nail to save it. If your school is slated to stay open, you gang up with the other ARC members that are also not slated to close and out vote the minority to close down anyone but yourself.

It is nasty and it doesn't have to be like that - every school is important to every community.

On that note - we are reaching out to all members of all the elementary ARC processes underway right now: Central Mountain ARC, East Hamilton City ARC, West Flamborough ARC, West Glanbrook ARC.

We need to organize to share notes, strategy and put a stop to this charade of public consultation right now.

Thinking long term, there is an election next fall and an organized response is needed field new candidates and defeat every trustee that does not value community schools.

Please join us for now at https://www.facebook.com/helpsavequeensd...

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By my labour of love (anonymous) | Posted October 17, 2013 at 19:18:42

Regarding the comments highlighting the inevitability of school closures... I agree, but that doesn't explain why we are building new ones. If schools need to be closed because of changing demographics, that is unfortunate but inevitable. This does not explain the need to build new schools. Closing schools to build new schools is wasteful and unnecessary. Particularly as our heritage buildings (Delta being one of them) is one of the many things that are drawing new residents to the downtown core. The school board should see the age of some of their buildings as assets rather than liabilities.

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By Mal (anonymous) | Posted October 18, 2013 at 08:30:08 in reply to Comment 93378

It would be interesting to see how many jobs in the last five years have been tied to institutional construction and infrastructure spending. My suspicion is that this might help explain the province's yen for new schools.

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By Steve (registered) | Posted October 18, 2013 at 06:44:52

Mostly any public consultation is window dressing at best. Some at the Pan Am area consultation commented how "community centre" morphed into "senior community centre" from one consultation to the next.

Usually you can tell the outcomes, when you look at the operators chairing/sponsoring the consultations.

All reminds me of when The City of Burlington had employees form teams to develop a new city flag. One team member shared with me the one chosen wasn't even submitted by any of the teams. Seems there was, unbeknownst to the employee teams, a consultant also working on a flag design.

Me, I'd say: Thanks for wasting my time!!!

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By highwater (registered) | Posted October 18, 2013 at 10:03:28

I do not recall seeing any reports from engineers or architects about the possibility of the renewal of existing schools, only a chart showing the total dollar value of all repairs needed.

Ah yes. The infamous ReCapp numbers.

The City of Hamilton and the HWDSB need to work in cooperation. I noted that City councillors were absent from every North ARC meeting. I understand that there may have been conflicts with the time of the meeting. How much effort was made to accommodate the busy schedules of the councillors?

AFAIC, 90% of the blame for the current state of board/city relations lies with the board. They adamantly refuse to acknowledge that their decisions have any impact beyond school property lines, or on the well-being of children after 3:30pm. Parents and community members who attempt to advocate for the community's stake in local schools are accused of putting their own interests above what's best for the children.

While it would have been wise from a political perspective for councillors to show their colours at the public ARC meetings, I can tell you from experience that it would have had no impact whatsoever on the results. Brian McHattie was very active in the Dalewood ARC, particularly behind the scenes meeting with both board and provincial reps to try to negotiate a solution that would keep Prince Philip open, but to no avail.

I'm glad council finally stood up to this arrogant, isolationist board by refusing to partner with them in the North high school debacle. Looks good on them.

Comment edited by highwater on 2013-10-18 10:03:49

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By John Neary (registered) | Posted October 18, 2013 at 10:26:13

Much as I hate to say it, I think the blame primarily lies with the Province. The HWDSB is useless and incompetent but to a certain extent they are simply following the inevitable logic of a system in which there is a fixed pool of money for school operating costs and a variable pool of money for new construction and school buses (i.e. they place no value on minimizing construction and transportation costs.)

While a less useless organization than the HWDSB might not have acted so callously in response to these incentives, similar stories are playing out all over Ontario. Kathleen Wynne didn't create this broken funding formula but she is now responsible for it and it is high time for her to change it.

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By arienc (registered) | Posted October 20, 2013 at 09:19:17

The school board that Hamiltonians have elected have made their priorities well known in this article

1: the school buildings

2: PARKING for staff.

3: sports fields.

Note nowhere do they mention students or the community. These are the values that your representatives are upholding, time and time again. Time for an organized campaign to vote every single one of these trustees out of the role.

Comment edited by arienc on 2013-10-20 09:19:48

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By SCRAP (anonymous) | Posted October 20, 2013 at 15:08:56

I am going to take a different approach to all this. It is everyday, average people, who sit and still think that the system still works, meanwhile with all the austerity budgeting issues coming down the line, I fear too many of you have no fight in you.

Do you think , coming forward with honey lips, begging, please sir, gives some more is going to work, you are all delusional.

Generations before us, knew how to stand and rise up and fight for what is really important.what is the matter with you all????

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By Why (anonymous) | Posted November 01, 2013 at 14:25:40

I just do not see why people place such emotional attachment on buildings that are actually interfering with delivery of quality education. These old schools need to be closed. New schools are equipped with state of the art teaching technologies and allow for our kids to be educated for the jobs of tomorrow. The only thing we need to be fighting for is placing fewer, better equipped, schools in locations that will service our kids. Beyond that, these debates are misplaced sentiment and nostalgia.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted January 31, 2014 at 14:23:58 in reply to Comment 94104

Which state of the art teaching technologies can't be installed in buildings that are already built?

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By Go Go (anonymous) | Posted January 31, 2014 at 12:40:12 in reply to Comment 94104

I believe it is less about the building and more about the program.

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By edgamicashin (anonymous) | Posted November 01, 2013 at 18:21:01

Technology like what, smartboards?

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