When I was a child, I took my neighbourhood school for granted. It seemed like a long way to walk but, returning 40 years later, I see now it was little more than a stone’s throw from my home.
If my mom whistled from the back deck, I could hear her as far as the closest baseball diamond.
I could come home for lunch, and did, to chicken noodle soup and cheese sandwiches.
I stayed late for Brownies and walked home alone in the dark.
My neighbourhood school is still there, a bland box in a huge, barren field. I’ve never seen anyone play scrub on the that gravel desert, although some one-on-one basketball takes place on the blacktop there sometimes. It’s just a building to me now.
I suppose I was lucky but I didn’t think much about the value of my neighbourhood school when I went there.
An annex to a larger school a bit further away, mine was built in the 1960s, a time when there were four children to each family. It was not the community hub schools are today. Not much more than Brownies went on after-hours in those days, and parents, whether they worked or stayed at home, weren’t common in the hallways.
There were no family resource rooms for literacy programs or parenting support. People kept their troubles and their hardships to themselves.
There was only one language – English – and the one or two children who stood out quickly assimilated.
There were vulnerable kids who wet their pants in class; and students were grouped by ability and sent out of the room if they were “slow.” There was the strap. There was also bullying; it was quiet, it was insidious and it coloured many of my school memories.
I remember once a group of Grade 6 girls guarded the one obvious entry to the school grounds. You had to say whose side you were on before you were allowed in. A coward, I immediately pledged my allegiance and gained entry. My braver younger sister, a tiny Grade 2 student in tears from the experience, told a teacher and was brought into the Grade 6 class to point out the offenders. Somehow, she escaped further torment.
Schools like mine were built in similar cookie-cutter fashion across B.C. But many could soon be gone, says Education Minister Shirley Bond, pointing to a decline of 72,000 students between 2001 and 2012. In School District 43, the numbers aren’t much different. We’ve lost 2,500 students since 2001 and could lose another 2,300 in the next five years – and that’s with significant growth planned for all three cities.
Blame the two-child family, the rising cost of housing and raising a family, moms and dads both working, whatever. Families are getting smaller and that trend isn’t likely to change.
But today, there’s more to mourn with the closure of small, neighbourhood schools. The schools slated for closure look a lot like my old school, although inside, they are very different because of changes in education, discipline and increased diversity. They provide many kinds of support to children and families; there are hot lunches, daycares, pre-schools and walking school buses. Some programs will transfer to new schools but not all. Kids who go to these schools still can and do walk to them but they’ll likely be driven to their new ones if they close.
I don’t know if Tri-City parents opposing school closures ever had the kind of neighbourhood school they want for their children, or if it’s a memory or a dream. And I don’t know if we can afford to keep small schools open until they’re almost empty.
But I do think there’s some untapped potential out there that could be explored. Empty classrooms should be used for provincial and city programs that need to rent space anyway. Kids and families will only benefit if their schools offer a wider range of community services.
I wouldn’t have lost any sleep if that ugly building where I went to school for six years was razed. But if there were some way to give that school a second, better life, I seen no reason it shouldn’t continue to educate kids.
Maybe some could still go home at lunch for a cheese sandwich and a bowl of chicken noodle soup.
Diane Strandberg is The Tri-City News’ assistant editor and education reporters; she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.