Five hub school proposals have been made, and all have been denied. The province has committed to reviewing their guidelines, but has the concept itself become tainted?
Low student enrolment has led school boards across the province to shut down schools.
In 2013, the term “hub school” emerged, describing a potential solution that combined education with community assets, such as daycare centres, libraries and gyms.
It was pegged as a collaborative, financially responsible approach by the Nova Scotia Small Schools Initiative, one that would keep these schools alive.
One year later, the province adopted the idea and put forward a list of criteria that interested community groups had to meet in crafting their proposals to establish hub schools.
In addition to having a list of eligible community partners, they had to have sufficient funding that would “result in no increase to capital or operational costs for the school board or the province.” And their plan also couldn’t create any more work for the school board.
Community groups in Maitland, Wentworth, River John, Louisbourg and Digby Neck — made up of concerned parents and volunteers — spent months drafting proposals. They were all denied after a lengthy school review process, and four of the five schools were designated for closure.
The term “hub school,” once viewed as a saving grace, is now what Leif Helmer calls “the kiss of death.”
“These hub schools are born out of last resort right now,” said Helmer, founding member of the Small Schools Initiative on Thursday.
“It’s often a tense conflict situation that the school and the school board have gone through with the communities.”
Susan MacQuarrie was a member of the Chignecto-Central Regional School Board during the review processes for Maitland, Wentworth and River John in 2015.
She’s an optimist, but she thinks the current guidelines are impossible for a group to meet.
“It was very cut and dry. With those three schools in particular, it was very, very difficult.” she said in a recent phone conversation.
All three schools put forth creative, collaborative ideas. River John’s group, for example, wanted to create a Scholar Ship exploration centre for children, a Wide Awake Art Gallery and Café, a community hub garden, and an outdoor recreation and environmental education park.
Their proposal emphasized that they would remain a school first and foremost, and had secured fundraising support from local businesses and artists.
But not enough to cover the more than $170,000 in operating fees and the $560,000 for roof repairs.
The groups in Wentworth and Maitland were also tasked with raising between $130,000 and $245,000.
And without approval from the school board, there aren’t very many business partners who are going to green light funding without knowing the project is moving forward.
MacQuarrie wrote a letter to Education Minister Karen Casey in March 2015, prior to the hub school rejections.
She listed eight flaws with the guidelines, including the fact that they were drafted by “salaried senior administration” and not school board members.
In order for hub schools to work, she thinks there needs to be more collaboration between the board, province and community.
“I think other government departments need to step in. It just can’t be a school board problem,” she said.
Since these schools have closed, students are now subject to bus rides of up to one hour each way.
“No child under the age of 10 should be on a bus for an hour or more a day,” MacQuarrie wrote in her letter to the province.
She added that the rural roads these buses planned to travel are treacherous.
More than a year has passed and she hasn’t received a response from the province.
During her four-year term on the board, she was caught up in controversy that began when she filed a harassment complaint against chairwoman Trudy Thompson and then-superintendent Gary Clark.
She ran in the recent election to keep her seat, but lost to Sharron Byers.
“I respect the board,” she said. “But there were problems with transparency . . . a problem with communities getting the correct information on time.”
Her school board says a school review is a tough process, one where no one comes out victorious.
It has been more than a year since the three schools have closed, and a recently published School Closure Report says the students are coping, both socially and emotionally, at their new locations.
Despite some uneasiness by students and their guardians, the princpals found that the transition was proving successful.
“When the governing board makes the final decision on a school closure, like they did with these three schools, it’s done with the good of all students in mind,” board spokeswoman Debbie Buott-Matheson said on Monday.
She said the board reported $900,000 in savings from the 2015-16 fiscal year, with $750,000 forecasted for the following year. She added that none of the hub school proposals were the right fit, as per the province’s hub school guidelines — guidlines the province has recently committeed to reviewing.
“We are currently reviewing the guidelines to determine if any clarification may be needed,” read an emailed statement from the Department of Education on Thursday.
But Helmer thinks it’s a bit late to be reviewing the guidelines.
“I think the government would have been much wiser to review them after a year, and consider that first year a pilot,” he said over the phone on Thursday.
Helmer’s ideal guidelines would direct each school board to go and find a building in their community that could be transformed into a hub pilot project.
And this project wouldn’t come about just because a school is up for closure. Instead, it would be a mandatory program for each board.
Helmer points to SchoolsPlus as an example — a provincial program that directs services and support to students and families. It was first implemented in one high school in each district, and now there about five programs in each board.
He also wants to see school boards take a leadership role. Every board has a director of operations in charge of buildings, and he thinks they would be the ideal person to co-lead the pilot.
This teamwork exists in other parts of the country. In New Brunswick the trend is called community schools — and they’re successful. Back in 2008, they already had 16 schools that partnered with local organizations in order to give students a hands-on learning experience.
“This is best practice across Canada, and for some reason Nova Scotia can’t get our heads around how to do it,” Helmer said.
Robert Fowler, the man who assisted in shaping the current guidelines for hub schools in Nova Scotia, has some ideas of his own.
In 2014, Fowler wrote a discussion paper that became the basis for the hub school consultation.
“That criteria is largely what we recommended, but it may have been a little narrow,” he said on Thursday.
The current guidelines stipulate that a school can become a hub by adopting community partners.
But his report specified that a hub school could also operate out of an existing facility — owned either by the municipality or a community group — where the school board could run a school program as a tenant.
His report also pointed out a financial hill, one that was going to be tough to conquer without school board support.
“Is there a way for government — and I’m not just saying provincial and I’m not just saying the department of education — to provide support to these?” he asked.
And maybe this whole process needs more time.
Fowler said school boards do long-range planning and may be able to signal much earlier which schools are in jeopardy.
“This would allow communities to mobilize earlier,” he said.
“The more time you have, the more likely it is that you might be able to muster a program that would be good for the kids to stay in their community and the community to have a broader facility that is good for dynamics.”
And, to be frank, he doesn’t think any of this is simple. If it was, there would be a hub school in operation already.
“I wish we would get one off the ground to prove that it could work, or prove it doesn’t work.”
A rundown of all the hub school denials in the province:
Maitland District Elementary School
The school shut its doors to 22 students in June 2015, and they have since been relocated. The hub school proposal was denied by the Chignecto-Central Regional School Board after the group didn’t secure the $130,000 necessary to fund school programs and other proposed community spaces like a second-hand shop and a hostel.
Wentworth Consolidated Elementary School
The hub school society in Wentworth was tasked with raising about $245,000, with only one classroom and one washroom available to offer to business partners as part of the hub centre. The proposal was denied in June 2015. Since then, 28 students have been taking riding a bus for about 50 minutes to and from school every day.
River John Consolidated School
Their hub school proposal was denied by CCSRB in 2015, and the board denied their pleas to give their proposal a second look. On top of other expenses, the group was required to raise more than $500,000 for roof repairs.
Digby Neck Consolidated School
The Tri-County Regional School Board voted to keep the isolated, rural school open in September but rejected a proposed plan to turn it into a community hub. About 30 students attend the school.
George D. Lewis School
The Cape Breton Regional School Board has slated the school for closure in 2017 after the hub school proposal didn’t meet all the financial requirements. But a community group is fighting to keep their proposal alive by seeking help from the city and province.
Original publish date: Nov. 7, 2016