Thursday, July 2, 2009

Alternatives should be explored before closing Prince of Wales

(Written for "Root Issues" in the Barrie Examiner:

A serious mistake is being made. The Simcoe County District School Board is in the process of closing Prince of Wales elementary and redistributing its students to three other schools.

Public schools provide a number of important community benefits. Obviously they prepare our children with the foundations of society’s knowledge and ideas. But they are far more than that – they are also key and irreplaceable parts of our community. They serve as a place for both children and adults to gather – during school hours and outside – and even when empty, are a powerful symbol of the identity of a community.

Earlier in the past century, before the automobile became the primary method of transportation, we walked. In the countryside, one-room schools could be found every few miles. In cities, each neighbourhood competed with the next to see who could support the best facility to anchor their community.

Nowadays, of course, it is impractical for rural children to walk miles. Our education system isn’t suited to one-room, all-ages education, and rural roads may not be safe year-round for long walks, so busing is the standard. But cities provide density and the safety of sidewalks, allowing most children to walk to a public school. The reason we live in cities – rather than Ontario’s beautiful countryside – is to be closer to community functions, like schools. To live in a city, yet be unable to walk to school, runs contrary to the raison d’etre of urban life. For this to happen because the Board has decided to close an existing school – for reasons unfathomable – is perverse.

In the midst of an epidemic of childhood obesity, kids spend more time in front of televisions, computers, or game screens than you can imagine (until you witness it). For many, their only exercise takes place at school. Schools try to provide as much physical activity as possible, but it must compete in a very tight schedule with the critical “three R’s” and for funding of teachers and facilities. Extra-curricular activity also contributes, but is much more haphazard and depends largely upon aptitude, funding, and available time. Walking to school, by itself, can add hours of healthy exercise to each child’s week. Presenting no staff or facility cost to the Board, it applies to all of the students in the area, regardless of their personal or family situation. If the default is to walk to school, parents have to make a conscious decision to drive their children instead, losing this health benefit.

Recent studies have shown a very clear link between walking to school and improved student health. Once you put students on a bus and take them out of area, this benefit can not be retrieved. A neighbourhood school also makes it far easier for children to participate in healthy extra-curricular activities because they can go home and return more easily, or don’t have to arrange a ride to or from school to take part.

Being able to walk to school is not merely a factor in students’ physical health. Parental involvement has measurable educational benefits. Families are far more likely to be involved in school life during the day or evening if they can walk there. Forcing parents to drive creates barriers to those who don’t have a car, or don’t have one available while one spouse is at work.

Since the dawn of civilization, schools have served a wider role than simply presenting the curriculum. They are a community meeting hall, a rallying point, a place for children of all ages to play outside of class time. Many worthy initiatives began as a few citizens meeting after hours in an empty classroom. Ontario’s Good Places to Learn report recognizes these critical qualities, but our Board’s own valuation process merely paid lip service to them.

Given the love, care and hope we have for our children’s future, schools serve as the beating heart of the community, a physical repository of neighbourhood identity and pride. To cut out this heart for the mere sake of expediency strains credulity. Before the doors of Prince of Wales close forever, the Board needs to reconsider ALL of the alternatives that have been identified to keep this heart beating.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.

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