Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Manufacturing a Crisis, part three: Geography and Enrolment

Now that we've examined KPR's enrolment figures in detail, let's look at them in relation to the geography of Peterborough. Along the way we'll see how excluding Crestwood at the outset helped Hick put the Trustees into "hurry-up" mode.

The enrolment statistics at the schools present five distinct patterns, driven by several factors. The city of Peterborough is sprawling to the west and has been doing so for a long time, and new housing developments in the northwest and southwest appear likely to provide new students. By contrast, the east side of town is experiencing much less interest, and this has been the case for a generation or more. It is thus reasonable to assume that Adam Scott and Crestwood would continue to draw a sufficient number of students to provide as great a breadth of programming as one would desire.

PCVS, however, continues to operate near capacity for other reasons. First, its reputation as a place where high academic achievement, citizenship, and the arts may all be pursued in an environment which encourages individuality draws students from all five city wards, and indeed from beyond city limits entirely. Students have been drawn to the Integrated Arts program from as far away as Millbrook, Havelock, Douro, Lakefield and Bethany, to name only the few cases with which I am personally familiar. There has also been an ESL program at PCVS, drawing recent immigrants to the school.

Second, a desire to attend PCVS is easy to act on for a large number of students, regardless of their individual reasons, because the school is situated in close proximity to a great proportion of Peterborough’s residential neighborhoods, including those from which students might be routed to the four outlying schools. These factors explain why the rate of decline of enrolment at PCVS over the past ten years has been slower than at other schools.

Hick’s comment, made at the Trustees’ meeting on Sept. 29 and reported in the Examiner, that all the Peterborough schools are “not very far” from the city’s “downtown,” indicates that it has been a long time since he studied Geography. It also suggests that he has never in fact walked around Peterborough. This is hardly surprising, considering that Hick’s personal and professional background is not in Peterborough but in York Region, an area entirely dominated by automobile-dependent suburban and ex-urban sprawl, and he is never obliged to even enter Peterborough during his commute to the Board's offices on Fisher Drive in the far south-west corner of the city's industrial zone.

The plain fact is that all secondary schools except PCVS are actually significantly closer to the city’s limits than to its core.

TASSS is nearly 4 km from the Peterborough Square/Market Hall complex, to use a convenient central landmark, but barely a half a kilometer from the city limit at the Trent canal. Kenner is in a similar position at the south end of town, almost 4 km from Market Hall but only a half a kilometer from the river which is the border of the city’s residential area. Crestwood is located beyond city limits entirely, while Adam Scott is 3 km from Market Hall but barely 1.5 km from the city’s northwestern limit.

PCVS is located less than 1 km from Market Hall, right at the north end of the commercial core, separating the residential neighborhoods to the north from the downtown strip, alongside other key community institutions such as City Hall, the courthouse, the police station and churches. The majority of the city’s residences are located within a 2 km radius of PCVS – about a half-hour walk for a teenager, easily accomplished. The bus station is only a five minute walk from PCVS, further facilitating anyone’s arrival via city bus from almost any neighborhood in about the same length of time without having to make any transfers, and allowing Millbrook students to access the GO bus for after-hours trips.

Most students in Ashburnham Ward east of the river, for example, live in closer proximity to PCVS than to TASSS, the exception being of course those residing north of Parkhill. Students living in the hospital area in Monaghan Ward are closer to PCVS than to Crestwood. Those living south of the core in the GE area are closer to PCVS than to Kenner. Even those living in the older area of Northcrest near Parkhill are closer to PCVS than to Adam Scott.

The upshot is that it will continue to be exceptionally easy to travel to PCVS for a huge number of Peterborough residents, and this will only be increasingly the case as the province’s and city’s plans are to increase the population density of the core further over the next 20 years in accordance with "new urbanist principles" and sustainability.

For these reasons, PCVS’s enrolment is highly unlikely to shrink at the rate at which is portrayed in the data sheet presented to the Board, the basis of whose calculations remains unknown.

Jay Amer, PCVS foundation president and a local economic development professional, questioned these numbers at the public ARC meeting at Kenner, but it is unknown whether the process by which they were arrived at was made clear in response, the numbers were revised, or neither. Amer's professional qualifications for questioning them may be viewed here.

It is also unclear, because we do not know the source of the calculations, whether the maintaining of PCVS near capacity, which seems a more likely scenario, would happen at the expense of the enrolment at the other schools, accelerating the decline in enrolment at TASSS and Kenner, or if in fact the overall decline in enrolment forecast for all schools in Peterborough was exaggerated by the figures provided on the data sheets.

So why were Adam Scott, Kenner, TASSS and PCVS selected for review, and not Crestwood?

Let’s look at what the numbers would have been if Crestwood were included in the original picture. A glance back at the chart included in Part One of Manufacturing a Crisis gives these figures.

If Crestwood was in fact operating at 90% capacity of 1075 last year, and had been included in the group, we would find that Peterborough secondary schools had a total enrolment of about 4,000 for about 5,000 spots, or about 80% capacity. This is still below the threshold of 85% which might bring about a review, but higher than the 75% rate of the four schools on their own, and it creates less of a sense of urgency to act. Moreover, the relative difference Crestwood makes in the total figures grows over time, according to the projections, so that in 2014-2015 the total enrolment across the city would be at 63% capacity with Crestwood included, but 57% without.

Since the only schools that were significantly under capacity were Kenner and TASSS, Hick might more reasonably have presented these two for review. If considered together, the average enrolment currently would not be much more than 60% of capacity. Since these schools both serve the southeast side of the urban area and its environs, which is experiencing very slow growth, it would make demographic sense to consider consolidating them, especially because many of the areas which TASSS serves are actually closer to Kenner than to TASSS. This has been generally the kind of thinking that has guided other school boards in their creation of Accommodation Review Committees, as we will see in future posts. The scope of such a review would have cumbersome enough, but not as outrageously large as the review of the group of four.

In this scenario, however, Kenner would most likely be the place chosen to consolidate the two groups of students because it would be easy to accommodate former TASSS students from the south end of Ashburnham Ward and Keene at Kenner, and those from the northeast and the former village of Ashburnham (Hunter St. E. and surrounding area) at PCVS, keeping them near their neighborhoods, while closing Kenner would mean no south-end school at all. Thus, whether TASSS had been considered on its own, or together with its closest demographic counterpart, the ARC would most likely have recommended closing it.

One can only imagine that Hick, a former TASSS principal prior to joining the Board office, could not have been happy at that prospect.

The declining enrolment at TASSS has everything to do with the unlikely location of the school in the northeast corner of town, sandwiched between the Otonabee river, the Peterborough Golf and Country Club, the Trent canal, Trent University, and rows and rows of retirement condominiums. There is a minimal local community of potential students within walking distance, and the TASSS Wikipedia page states that 75% of the students are bused to school, while about half come from outside Peterborough.

The school was built large in 1967, reputedly on that site because the land had been given for free to the school board, to accommodate the baby boom generation which has now long since aged. As we will see in future posts, the desire to build large school buildings, which has infected decision-makers ever since the baby-boom years, inevitably results in those same buildings becoming "under-utilized" later, thus creating artificial levels of concern regarding student population figures, while not resulting in any improvement in quality of education.  We will see in future posts how the current situation would look if TASSS had simply been built on a smaller scale in the first place.

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