More than 150,000 students across the province may see the doors of their schools close forever in the coming years, according to a new report by People for Education.
As a result of low enrolment, 146 Ontario schools may be slated to close over the next two years. The impact on smaller communities could be potentially devastating, says the group’s executive director.
“It can become an accelerating issue, where a small town loses people and services and if it loses its schools, fewer families want to move there,” said Annie Kidder.
“Do we say to a small town, ‘No, sorry, it’s just too expensive?”‘
The report shows that more than 100 schools are on the chopping block for closure as a result of dwindling enrolment numbers in both high schools and elementary schools.
Since the 1997-98 school year, there has been a 15 per cent decline in enrolment for Ontario elementary schools and since 2002, average enrolment in secondary schools has dropped by 14 per cent.
While 16 schools held their last day of classes in 2008, another 34 schools are set to close in 2009.
Kidder said closures are a contentious issue because boards and schools receive much of their funding based on their number of students – meaning smaller schools are left with fewer programs, and boards are faced with some tough choices.
“We think these are pretty startling numbers and we want to draw attention to it as a provincial issue,” Kidder said.
The report also sheds a light on the growing problems in northern Ontario schools, with one principal complaining of working with a “half science lab,” because there’s not enough cash to go around.
The effects of school closure also impacts poorer areas.
Joanne MacEwan, chair of the Ottawa Catholic School Parents’ Association says a high-needs, high-poverty area in the eastern part of the city recently saw its middle school close.
“Instead of going to high school in Grade 9, they’ll be going to high school in Grade 7,” said MacEwan, adding it also means the children can’t walk to school and won’t be in the area during school hours.
But Ontario’s Education Minister Kathleen Wynne said school boards desperately needed to make local decisions after a moratorium on school closures was lifted in 2006.
“It doesn’t mean less programming and in some cases, for rural areas, it means better programming,” Wynne said.
She described the better opportunities as larger schools for students, more classes and better resources.
“It’s not something communities like to go through, but if they can see their kids are going to have a better opportunity that will soften the blow,” she said.
Urban schools are not immune from closures either, Wynne said, emphasizing that closures are not a rural or northern issue and almost every school board will be affected.
For Kidder, she hopes the province will find creative ways of saving the schools by creating multiple uses for them such as opening public libraries or health offices inside the buildings.
“Schools could be hubs of services for families and the communities around them,” Kidder said.
While Wynne isn’t opposed to the suggestion, Kidder said she wants to see the government create policies to support that kind of community integration.
– By Ciara Byrne, The Canadian Press