Stirring the Pot - June 4, 2008
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Jun 04, 2008  |  Vote 0    0

Stirring the Pot - June 4, 2008

St. Marys Journal Argus

Downie Central Public School stands today, having been threatened but ultimately untouched by multiple accommodation reviews at the Avon Maitland District School Board, in large part due to the willingness and/or desire of parents in southwest Stratford to have their children educated in rural surroundings.South Perth Centennial Public School is home to a much smaller number of students from St. Marys whose similarly against-the-grain parents have chosen to apply for border-crossing status to attend the rural school. More significantly, South Perth's enrollment is enhanced by the school board's requirement for special needs-accessible resources for a small number of St. Marys students ' resources that currently aren't available in St. Marys.In the short term, a new elementary school in St. Marys will eliminate the need for some students to be transported to South Perth. Avon Maitland chair Meg Westley cautioned, however, that there are no plans to construct instructional space geared specifically towards special needs students, so the Rannoch-area school may remain the best option for some families.(Westley added that she doesn't expect the board to tighten up border-crossing rules just to force the few rural-friendly St. Marys residents to attend the new school instead.)When it comes to the rural schools surrounding St. Marys, though, the longer-term issue is probably the relocation of Grades 7 and 8 students into St. Marys DCVI. Specifically, if space eventually opens up in the high school, will the board decree that senior elementary students relocate to DCVI from South Perth and Downie (most of whom would likely go to Stratford)? And where would that leave the enrolments in the two rural schools?Seeking perspective on the potential effects of such a move, I contacted two people who, several years ago, worked diligently (and ultimately successfully) to have their rural school removed from earlier versions of the Avon Maitland District School Board closure list.Mike Brine's youngest child now attends St. Marys DCVI but, when I spoke to him on a recent evening, he had just returned from South Perth's annual Fun Fair. In short, he's still a strong supporter of the school.He's also a strong supporter of providing elementary education in a Kindergarten-to-Grade 8 environment. "The new St. Marys (elementary school) isn't really my school, so I don't like to comment, but I am disappointed that the community's wishes were not heard on (K-8 configuration)," Brine said.He sees no short-term threat of losing South Perth's Grades 7 and 8s into DCVI, because the relocation of the students currently at Arthur Meighen will leave no room to spare at the high school. Down the road, "it's hard to say . . . I've never put much stock in the enrolment trends released by the board."When it comes to educating Grades 7 and 8 students, an opposing viewpoint is put forward by Perth South councillor Stuart Arkett. And that's not surprising: Arkett and his wife applied for border-crossing status to send their Grades 7 and 8-aged children out of Downie Central's catchment area into the three-year-old senior elementary configuration attached to Stratford Central Secondary School. Arkett praises the enhanced educational and social opportunities to which his children have access, noting his Grade 7 daughter participated in a musical quartet led by a Grade 10 student.Indeed, Arkett speaks of a "two-tier" rift developing in Avon Maitland territory: one group of senior elementary students who have access to the specialized resources available in high school settings; and another group (increasingly in rural areas, as the 7s and 8s-to-the-high-school model rolls out in Goderich and St. Marys) without access.It should be noted that, like Brine, Arkett remains a strong supporter of the rural school he fought to save in the early 2000s."It's interesting. I've expressed my feelings to (trustees about the 7s and 8s model) and they've said to me, ‘be careful what you wish for'," referring to possible effects on the enrolments of surrounding rural schools."They kind of throw that back in my face every time I raise that issue," Arkett said. "But I think that's a red herring."In the future, he sees boundary adjustments. He sees continued desire among a number of urban parents to have their children educated in rural settings. And even though he sees more Grades 7 and 8 students ' from towns and rural areas ' relocating to high school settings, he predicts Downie and South Perth will remain intact over at least the medium term.Westley admits that, "obviously, when we make a decision in the town, it's going to have an effect on the surrounding feeder schools." But she stressed that, in terms of the new St. Marys school proposal, "South Perth has not been a big part of the decision to date." And she disagrees with Arkett's assessment that the board will eventually move to relocate all Grades 7s and 8s."Study after study seems to show that the configuration is not the key to quality education. We're confident we can deliver quality education in either configuration," the Avon Maitland chair said.In Mitchell, she added, an ongoing accommodation review proposes closing the primary/junior elementary school and making Upper Thames Elementary School the town's only K-8 school. The high school will remain untouched.She agrees, however, that the long-term viability of all rural schools is tough to predict. Asked about South Perth, she said schools in northern Huron County are more likely to face potential changes within the next few years. "I don't think (South Perth) is an urgent case," she said, which sounds good until you consider that statement also betrays that the Rannoch school probably is on the board's radar screen.Tough decisions will, undoubtedly, have to be made. But consider this: in Owen Sound, a pending "heritage" designation application by the municipality means the Catholic school board must not demolish an aging wing of a high school. The wing will be boarded up and left vacant, while students attend newer portions of the building. Amazingly, at the far end of the structure, the same board will construct a $3.7 million addition, using the "prohibitive to repair" money it received from the Education Ministry for vacating the old wing.It makes the St. Marys version of the PTR process, as well as possible future decisions by this school board, seem positively clear-cut.

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