Special Report: Education

Reverse the Closure of Sir John A Macdonald Secondary School

Planning decisions by the school board can no longer be made in isolation from needs of the community at large.

By Gary Santucci
Published December 02, 2014

Sir John A. Macdonald Secondary is the largest high school in the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board. The school opened in 1970 and the student body now represents over 80 countries of origin and has over 50 different native languages.

Sir John A. Macdonald Secondary School (Image Credit: Wikipedia)
Sir John A. Macdonald Secondary School (Image Credit: Wikipedia)

The school has a theatre auditorium that seats 750 people, which was originally built as a community performance venue that could not be accommodated in the construction of Hamilton Place. There are auto mechanic garages, two large art studio classrooms and a large natural grass playing field.

The school is located at 130 York Boulevard, close to the city Public Library and across the street from the Copps Coliseum and Lloyd D. Jackson Square Mall.

The ongoing population growth in our Downtown Core, along with the residential intensification strategy for the Core as promoted during the election by our newly elected Mayor Fred Eisenberger, demands that we maintain a Secondary School in the Core to keep the momentum for this intensification that must include families.

Unique Opportunities

Sir John A Macdonald is uniquely located in the hub of our public transit system, accessible by bus from many points in the City. Further expansion of the yellow school bus approach to move students with its increased financial and environmental costs would not be incurred.

Currently, Westdale Secondary School is near capacity and will likely require portable classrooms, in addition to a multi-million dollar renovation to the school's basement to accommodate the students resulting from the closure of Sir John A. Macdonald.

A simple boundary change of the catchment area will direct more students to Sir John A, relieving the stress on Westdale and reducing costs.

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) also incurs costs by renting space for programs outside of the normal classrooms. These programs could be relocated to Sir John A to take advantage of any excess classroom, thus reducing costs for the Board and resulting in immediate savings.

Once again, access from all points in the City by transit makes this a wise choice.

Referring to empty classrooms as excess space is a curious definition. These classrooms must be considered as opportunities for the Board and the community to repurpose and exploit for the benefit our citizens, both young and old.

Signature School for the Arts

One such obvious opportunity would be to designate Sir John A Macdonald Secondary School as the Board's Signature School for the arts, music, drama and the visual arts.

The school's facilities and location in proximity to the James Street North art's district would offer so many possibilities for students to engage with professional artists and the arts scene.

This move would bring students from many diverse backgrounds and socio-economic conditions together under one roof of artistic excellence.

Hamilton Place and the Studio Theatre were built with funds provided by the residents of the City of Hamilton, but these publicly-owned and -funded facilities have now become unaffordable for our performing arts community.

Restoring full access to the Sir John A Theatre would address the need for an affordable accessible mid-sized venue for our community and generate revenue for the HWDSB.

Integrated Planning

Finally, planning decisions by the HWDSB can no longer be made in isolation from needs of the community at large.

It is incumbent upon the newly elected Board to address this during the next term and to work closely with Hamilton City Council in an open and transparent manner.

Gary Santucci is the co-owner, with Barbara Milne, of The Pearl Company theatre and arts centre.

27 Comments

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By rethy (anonymous) | Posted December 02, 2014 at 12:02:42

the HWDSB will do whatever they can to justify the need for new buildings with massive parking lots.

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By Metalmare (registered) | Posted December 08, 2014 at 12:56:19 in reply to Comment 106505

Hello! I was once a student at Sir John A. MacDonald High School, I can't believe that they are again trying to close the School! I did go to a meeting in late 1988 to sign a book to keep the School open and as a Separate School instead it being changed to Catholic High School! The City should just leave the School alone, It's in a prime Location and has the right Teachers for the Students in today's work-force. DON'T DO IT ~ LEAVE IT ALONE AND KEEP IT OPEN....!!!

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By H1 (anonymous) | Posted December 02, 2014 at 13:14:07 in reply to Comment 106505

The Province will not fund the up keep of schools, but will fund new schools.

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By jason (registered) | Posted December 02, 2014 at 12:15:16

Don't forget, enrolment at sir john a is stable, and has increased since 2009.

Westdale is already full and set to add horrible portables to accommodate the kids from Sir John A heading out there.

There has never been a business, planning or enrolment case to close Sir John A. Like most of what the school board does, it's to support their mega parking lots on the outskirts of the city.

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By H1 (anonymous) | Posted December 02, 2014 at 13:16:38

the schools slated for closure sit on valuable land that the board can sell off and then purchase back at a higher price with help from the province.

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By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted December 08, 2014 at 11:46:09 in reply to Comment 106508

Was not sure where you were going with that comment but bravo.

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By RobF (registered) | Posted December 02, 2014 at 15:26:15

It's never been entirely clear why they need to close Sir John A. Other than the vagaries of a provincial funding regime that favors building new schools over renovating and maintaining old schools, that is.

Perhaps downtown intensification/redevelopment is still a big if, but the city is planning for several thousand new residential units in the West Harbour area, which is in the catchment. There is additional development and reinvestment in old houses happening across the core area.

Will none of this involve an increase in families with school-age children?

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By Fake Name (anonymous) | Posted December 02, 2014 at 15:35:44 in reply to Comment 106509

Mayor Bratina wanted to bulldoze Sir John A and use it to build a new stadium.

I'm starting to get suspicious that somebody behind the scenes has plans for the area and some important ears.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted December 02, 2014 at 16:03:30 in reply to Comment 106511

There was also that nastiness about back-channel correspondence between RockHammer and the City about turning the site into a downtown casino.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted December 02, 2014 at 15:34:12

School Boards are no longer responsible for developing curriculum or funding education. Both of those functions are under the direct and comprehensive control of the Ministry of Education. Aside from hiring and managing teachers and staff, the only thing the local school board still handles is asset management - and to put it bluntly, they're not very good at it.

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By TnT (registered) | Posted December 02, 2014 at 21:48:46

Is it too late to reverse the closures? Can it be reopened by the new trustees?

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted December 02, 2014 at 22:53:14

Please note the bizzare school boundary map for Sir John A.

In particular, see how Durand (where my family lives) is excluded, even although we are RIGHT NEXT TO THE SCHOOL. Instead, students who live here are supposed to travel all the way to Westdale. Insane.

The only logic seems to be 19th century class-based. Can't have us Duranders rubbing elbows with the downtown riff-raff.

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By Past (anonymous) | Posted December 03, 2014 at 13:44:06 in reply to Comment 106526

To understand the catchment area you need to look at the history.

The school was a foundry owned by Archie McCoy. (Who knows what evil chemicals lay underneath?)

At the time the school was planned, York was basically an alleyway surrounded by derelict buildings and squatters. The place was a cesspool.

As part of the overall remediation of the area, expropriations occurred which were quite contentious. (This eventually caused the formation of what is now the Dundurn Community Legal Clinic and a legal aid funded law source for the poor.)

Some years before Central High School which had been the sister school to Westdale burned down. Because of the population at the time, it was decided that building Scott Park and Sir John A made sense. (During this same era the Catholic Board had the same population issues and built Bishop Ryan, St. Mary's and Thomas More.)

Without getting into all the planning stuff like Jackson Square and the over-all remediation of the area, Sir John A had to draw from the Central population and the Westdale population to make sense. Needless to say, emotions ran high particularly for those people who lived in or moved into the area hoping to send their kids to Westdale. During this same period, a lot of the apartment buildings went up just south of Main.

After lots of gnashing of teeth, the boundary as it exists was created. I suspect that the hope was that the north end and Sir John A catchment area would continue to flourish. That did not happen as it has remained somewhat stagnant while the areas west of Dundurn grew.

This explains why Central Elementary went to Westdale in spite of the geography. There was no conspiracy. Parents who sent their kids to Central expecting them to go to Westdale passionately convinced the Board of their argument. Central had always been a Westdale feeder and there was a lot of tradition in what is now called the Durand neighbourhood, particularly as the board was competing with Hillfield for example for students.

Westdale is an awesome school. It is a multi-generational school. People whose parents (and now grandparents) went there felt that by living in its original catchment, they should be entitled to go there. In fact the people North of Main were not all that excited about losing their right to go to Westdale. But something had to be done.

Maybe it would have been better to rebuild Central High, but that is where the Claremont went in. In short there was a lot of balancing going on.

A lot of people fought against buying out Archie McCoy at a premium. But the city wanted heavy industry moved out of the downtown. If the foundry was still there, who knows what the area would look like. So compromises were made.

If you put yourself in the minds of people who made the decisions back then, I am not sure you would have made different decision on the catchment lines.
Now there is a great building there. The question is how do we maximize it’s use. If it is not a good place for a high school, maybe it would be a good place for a college, or college/community/arts centre, or – who knows ….


Some years before Central High School which had been the sister school to Westdale burned down. Because of the population at the time, it was decided that building Scott Park and Sir John A made sense. (during this same era the Catholic Board had the same population issues and built Bishop Ryan, St. Mary's and eventually Thomas More.)

Without getting into all the planning stuff like Jackson square and the over-all remediation of the area, Sir John A had to draw from the Central population and the Westdale Population. Needless to say, emotions ran high particularly for those people who lived or moved into the area hoping to send their kids to Westdale. During this same period, a lot of the apartment buildings went up just south of Main.

After lots of gnashing of teeth, the boundry as it exists was created. I suspect that the hope was that the north end and Sir John A catchment area would conintue to flourish. That did not happen as it has remained somewhat stagnant while the areas west of Dundurn grew.

This explains why Cnetral Elemntary went to WEstdale in spite of the geography. There was no consipiracy. Parent who sent their kidsto Central expecting them to go to Wesdale passionately ocnvinced the Board of their argument. Centra had always been a Westdale Feeder and there was a lot of tradition in the Druand neighbourhood particularly as the board was competing with Hillfield for example for students.

WEstdale is an awsome school. It is a multi generational school. People whose parents (and now grandparents) went there felt that by living in its original catchmnent, they cshoudl be entitled to go there. In fact the poeple North of Main were not all that excited about losing their right ot go to WEstdale. But something had ot be done.

Maybe it would havebeen better ot rebuild Central High, but that is where the Claremont went in. In short there was a lot of blanceing going on.

A lot of peple fought agianst buying out ARchie McCoy at a premium. But the city wanted heavy idustry moved out of the downtown. If the foundry was still there, who kows what the area would look like. So comporomises were made.

If you put yourself in the inds of people who made the decisoins abck then, I am not sure you would havemade different decision on the catchment lines.


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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted December 02, 2014 at 23:05:34 in reply to Comment 106526

Upon sober second thought... It gets worse. As we see from the Sir John A. School Cluster Map, (scroll down to second map at link) our brilliant School Board also directs students graduating from Central Elementary School to attend Westdale, not Sir John A.

This in spite of the fact that Central Elementary is a mere 850 metres from Sir John A.

As the link shows, the Google Maps route takes 4 minutes on a bicycle.

Say... I've got an idea for relieving the congestion at Westdale. Perhaps we don't need crappy portables at Westdale after all.

Comment edited by KevinLove on 2014-12-02 23:08:07

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By jason (registered) | Posted December 02, 2014 at 23:17:02 in reply to Comment 106527

this was pointed out and suggested over and over during the boards closure-fest. To no avail.

And despite some of the classist comments from Westdale parents, someone should remind them that their precious kids will be hanging with 'downtown riffraff' anyways when they come to Westdale.

Makes no sense all around.

Also, looking at those maps, wouldn't it make sense to at least adjust the catchment area to head south on Queen all the way to the base of the escarpment??

Comment edited by jason on 2014-12-02 23:19:06

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted December 03, 2014 at 01:47:23 in reply to Comment 106528

Makes sense to me!

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By I care (anonymous) | Posted December 03, 2014 at 10:34:08

Westdale overcrowded...of course! They have all the sought after programs in ...French immersion, I.B. Program, music program...why not spread it out...like the Catholic board does....and from almost anywhere in the city..SJAM is one bus trip...

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By jason (registered) | Posted December 03, 2014 at 17:30:23 in reply to Comment 106535

bingo. The Cathaolic board did this years ago with Cathedral and as a result, east Mtn and Stoney Creek friends bused down to cathedral for school to take advantage of the programs. And shocking, they turned out a-ok mingling with inner city peeps.

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By Fake Name (anonymous) | Posted December 03, 2014 at 12:42:50 in reply to Comment 106535

iirc, they're already doing that. Westdale is losing its strings program, I think. Honestly, if SJAM needs more enrollment, they should be moving the bulk of the special programs there, since it's 1 bus from everywhere in the city.

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By scrap (anonymous) | Posted December 03, 2014 at 13:05:40

Simply ridiculous, yet the people have no power in these decisions. Why is that, is the question that should be asked. The concept of building neighbourhood assemblies, seems like a good idea. I feel that at least thru this type of democratic process, that those who are divided by class distinctions could find one or two common things to fight for.

As with the Housing Monster series that has been up for discussion, a greater undersanding of the system, gives people something of common ground to latch onto and fight for.

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By rgelder@sympatico.ca (registered) - website | Posted December 05, 2014 at 15:18:34

At the time the decision was made by the North ARC (Accommodation and Review Committee), all the Board staff could see were casino dollar signs emanating from the property. To use PJ Mercanti's words, it was to be the "bee's knees" of a windfall.

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By Went to SJAM the year it opened (anonymous) | Posted December 06, 2014 at 08:10:24

No reason to pour money into older schools or waste money on building new ones (that we all know will be built of poor quality materials and won't last). SJAM was state of the art when it opened in 1970. If a school built then only has lifespan of 45 years, how quickly will Hamilton taxpayers have to repair & replace this so-called super-school?

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By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted December 08, 2014 at 11:57:29 in reply to Comment 106645

SJAM was state of the art when it opened in 1970.

Lets be real here though --- its not like the school is some jewel of architectural quality. It's enough to say that the school makes a lot more sense open than closed. It still looks like a brutalist prison.

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By smallhouse (registered) | Posted December 07, 2014 at 17:56:25

In the early spring of 2013 I spoke with a number of parents whose children would be impacted by the closure of SJAM. They (and I) were ready to campaign to keep the school open. But every person I spoke with for advice told me not to waste my time - there was no way the board would change their mind. SJAM is full of asbestos, which would be prohibitively costly to remove; keeping SJAM open would jeopardize the building of a new school on the Scott Park site.

So what now? Thanks for the article, but there's no point in continuing to discuss this without an action plan. Give me a solid plan that has enough merit to stand a chance of convincing the school board and I'll be out there campaigning with you!

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By mrjanitor (registered) | Posted December 07, 2014 at 23:52:16

Read the emails in the article if you want an answer as to why this school closure was rushed through.

http://jellyandgunner.ca/casino-proponen...

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By StoneMonkey (registered) | Posted December 08, 2014 at 16:09:34

http://www.peopleforeducation.ca/pfe-new...

changes coming to the school closing process. The MoE is hoping to make the process faster with less consultation. You can provide feedback to the Ministry, contact Grant Osborn: Grant.Osborn@ontario.ca; Mathew Thomas: Mathew.P.Thomas@ontario.ca, or Cindy Ryder-Davis: Cindy.Ryder-Davis@ontario.ca

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By FactsofHamilton (registered) | Posted December 08, 2014 at 20:22:00

In 2011, the HWDSB formed the North Secondary Accommodation Review Committee. It comprised of teachers, community members, parents, and other community stakeholders in Hamilton. The mandate given to the ARC members was to make recommendations to the board/MoE about the future of the North Hamilton Public high schools. SJAM fell into that category. I was able to find an interesting piece of information about utilization rates (current and projected), cost of operating each school, and a variety of other statistics for each Hamilton North high school (please see link below).

http://www.hwdsb.on.ca/secondaryarc/file...

I encourage everyone to review these data.

The recommendations of the North ARC can be found here:

http://www.hwdsb.on.ca/secondaryarc/files/2012/01/NorthARC_Presentation_CotW_Feb13_2012.pdf and http://www.hwdsb.on.ca/secondaryarc/file...

Happy reading.

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