Professor explores costs of school closings to communities

By Adela Talbot
April 10, 2014

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The continually postponed, yet somehow impending, closure of Lorne Avenue Public School in London’s Old East Village is just one example of an incongruence that exists between a community’s needs and policies surrounding school closures in the province.

Just ask Bill Irwin.

The push to close the school’s doors seems to be an economic exercise, overlooking educational and community needs, said the Huron University College Economics and Management and Organizational Studies professor.

“Lorne Avenue Public School is a classic example. It’s in a community where we are putting significant resources into revitalizing, but looking to close a school,” Irwin said.

Together with University of Waterloo School of Planning professor Mark Seasons, Irwin has launched a website, env-blogs.uwaterloo.ca/schoolclosures/, offering a research-based platform to guide discussion about school closures.

“We believe,” the website states, “that the theory and best practices of both urban planning and public participation are good foundations from which to ameliorate the school closure process, and ultimately lead to a more effective and equitable outcome for those involved.”

The website is one of the outcomes of a 2013-14 Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Insight Development Grant.

“We’re looking at the whole issue surrounding school closures, in terms of several touchstones – as a public policy issue, and how policy is developed and delivered; as a public participation issue and the relationship between institutions and communities; and the implications of closures in terms of impacts on financial, social and human capital,” Irwin explained.

 “When I started my research – my thesis (in 2012) was on school closures – no one else had looked at this issue since the policy had come forward in 2005,” he continued, adding if the province was closing smaller community schools as a fiscal savings measure, there existed no tracking thereof.

More importantly, there was no review of community costs.

“How does a closure impact students as learners? We don’t know if this is impacting students’ ability to learn, their marks, etc. This happens in young people’s lives at the same time they’re going through emotional, physical changes. There are so many unanswered questions in this,” Irwin continued.

A policy pushing for the closures of smaller community schools shows there is a great disconnect at the provincial level, he added.

“The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing is spending resources on rebuilding houses, while the Ministry of Education is supporting closures of community schools. We want to rebuild our inner cities, yet we want to shut down schools in their communities,” Irwin said.

“We’re taking schools from poor neighbourhoods and putting them in affluent neighbourhoods. It’s a reverse Robin Hood situation.”

What’s more, current policies surrounding school closures ignore previous research that shows smaller schools have a great impact within their communities.

“In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, robust research literature was done on the benefits of small schools as learning environments, as having long term benefits to students. That literature has been totally ignored in this whole process,” Irwin said.

In the case of Lorne Avenue, three groups have expressed interest in possibly leasing some of its vacant space, which could save the school from being closed next year. This would allow the Thames Valley District School Board to drop the school’s student capacity to 320, saving money and keeping the school open. The school can accommodate 880 but has only 270 students.

April 30 is the deadline to find a solution for the school, otherwise it will close in June 2015.

Irwin believes the above solution is a good one for Lorne Avenue.

“In terms of the building itself – it’s full of things like ESL, child care, a community resource centre. Why does a building have to be for education? Maybe a solution for this is that the building is owned by the community and the service (of education) is owned by the school board,” he said.

The interest in this topic is considerable, he added, noting more research is sure to follow the launch of the website.

“All of us realize there will be a provincial election this year. This should be part of the discussion. How we treat our schools has a tremendous impact long-term on the social fabric of our communities,” Irwin said.























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