Ontario can learn from Alberta and save small schools

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Appeared in the Epoch Times, May 25, 2024
Ontario can learn from Alberta and save small schools

Some Toronto parents are upset that their local elementary school is putting all students in grades 4, 5 and 6 in a single classroom. The Toronto District School Board says its hands are tied, no matter how parents feel, because of the school’s low enrolment numbers.

However, the tiny hamlet of Granum in southern Alberta is grappling with an even bleaker reality. With only 42 students in kindergarten to Grade 9, Granum School is at risk of closure. The community of Granum could lose its only school if it can’t find a way to attract more students.

Fortunately, Granum School is in Alberta where the government provides parents with more educational choice and flexibility than any other province. This means parents and other community members are not stuck in a one-size-fits-all situation but are free to explore creative solutions.

Granum School is part of the Livingstone Range School Division. Because Alberta allows school boards to be flexible, Livingstone has explored a variety of options for Granum School, from creating a specialized academy to introducing Christian-based programming. After surveying parents, Livingstone plans to offer a four-day school week starting next fall. To make this possible, school will start earlier and end later during the four days Granum School is open. The school will also shorten recess and lunch breaks.

In addition, Livingstone plans to open a daycare facility in one of the school’s empty classrooms to accommodate child-care needs on the fifth day of the week.

This isn’t the first time Livingstone used a creative way to keep a school vibrant. Back in 2016, Livingstone School in Lundbreck entered into a unique partnership with Castle Mountain Ski Resort to open Alberta’s first public school ski academy. Now students in that school can combine their academic learning with improving their skiing skills.

Of course, government school boards aren’t always able, or willing, to provide parents with the options they need. This is why Alberta also makes it possible for parents to open fully funded charter schools. In 2008, the community of Valhalla Centre in northwest Alberta used this option to save their local school from closure.

Instead of allowing the local school board to proceed with closure, parents and other community members banded together, purchased the school building from the board, and established Valhalla Community School as an independently operated charter school. Today, more than 15 years later, Valhalla Community School is still going strong.

For parents who want other options, Alberta also has a vibrant system of independent schools. Because independent schools in the province receive 70 per cent of the per-student funding public schools receive, they can keep their tuition rates more affordable than if parents had to pay the full cost themselves. Alberta is also one of the only provinces to subsidize parents who choose to homeschool their children.

The choice and flexibility provided by Alberta stands in stark contrast to the one-size-fits-all approach in Ontario where the government does not fund independent schools, nor does it allow parents to create charter schools. There’s also no subsidy for homeschooling parents.

In short, Ontario parents who cannot homeschool their children or afford independent school tuition have no choice but to send their children to their local government school. Unfortunately, Ontario school boards tend to be much less creative than their counterparts in Alberta.

For example, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) made a total mess of its specialized sports and arts academies when it recently changed its admissions criteria from a merit-based entry to a random lottery. This will lower the quality of instruction in these schools since teachers will have no choice but to accommodate students who lack the necessary skills.

Ironically, rural schools in Ontario cannot be closed at all because of a provincial school closure moratorium in place since 2017. While this might keep buildings physically open, this moratorium has made it impossible for school boards to consolidate smaller schools when it makes sense to do so. Even schools in large urban centres cannot be closed, no matter how small they become. Hence, the unfortunate reality of multigrade classrooms in Toronto schools.

Ontario’s one-size-fits-all approach is leading to educational stagnation. By following the example of Alberta, Ontario could make changes that would benefit students and parents alike. Flexibility and choice, not more government regulations, are just what Ontario’s education system needs right now.

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