The Ontario Government finally seems to have figured out that schools are not merely job-training factories.
Their new program, Good Places to Learn: Renewing Ontario's Schools, acknowledges that schools are "also a hub for wider community activity."
This bodes well for community schools that anchor and serve real neighbourhoods, rather than factory mega-schools, the educational equivalent of big box stores, in the middle of nowhere.
School closures under the Harris government were driven by the narrow, administrative goal of capital cost savings. Aging urban schools, small but often underpopulated, were deemed too expensive to maintain when brand-new schools were cropping up in the suburbs.
This reflected the mass post-war migration out of cities but also helped to acccelerate it by further hollowing out the public infrastructure that might otherwise have made cities more livable for families.
After the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board trustees passed a deficit budget in protest of the provincial funding formula, the Ontario government appointed a Supervisor to balance the budget, largely by closing old schools.
The economics behind this were tied entirely to the funding formula, which rewarded school boards for building new schools with capital financing but punished them for trying to renovate older schools.
Only 16 percent of total per-student costs are associated with capital expenditure, so a balanced funding formula that allocated money for both construction and renovation would realize only minimal savings by focussing primarily on cutting capital costs.
In any case, cramming as many units as possible into fewer facilities might make sense if those units were, say, tins of sardines. Humans are another matter.
The economics of the funding formula neglect the profound educational and developmental value of smaller buildings where students, teachers, and parents get to know each other by name, students can walk to school, and the school interacts with the surrounding community.
A number of studies have indicated that schools should be used, in the words of a McMaster University report, "to sew children's services together" in a sensible, integrated manner. The Good Places to Learn program is finally starting to recognize that schools are more than just warehouses for children.
Its long-term goal, under the Best Start plan, is "using community hubs such as schools to integrate screening and assessment, and provide access to services to help realize the potential of every child by improving the following: child health, safety, self-esteem, language and cognitive ability, acquisition and development of oral language and mathematical skills."
As a corrolary, the program also recognizes the "hundreds of community organizations active in our cities and towns that provide vital support to formal education. The Ministry of Education will provide incentives for more active partnership by covering part of the cost of space conversion. Boards will be asked to recognize existing 'subsidized space' in schools for potential use by these community organizations."
The new program also requires school boards to develop a school closure policy that evaluates a school based on the following four criteria before slating it for closure:
This intrinsically recognizes that the value of schools goes far beyond a narrow cost-benefit assessment at the administrative level, and extends into communities in a complex web of inter-relations. The 'bottom line', in this case, acknowledges that schools meet individual and social needs both directly and as community anchors.
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