Monday, 13 February 2012

The ARC That Should Have Been, part eight, at last: Refashioning the Ashburnham Ward school network

Let’s imagine that in December of 2010, instead of striking an Accommodation Review Committee to consider closing one of four Peterborough high schools, KPR Trustees struck an ARC to study the problematic situation on the east side of the Otonabee, where three mid-sized elementary schools only two-thirds full and becoming less full every year can’t possibly send enough students to TASSS to justify its huge size.

Students, parents and staff from each of TASSS, Armour Heights, King George and North Shore are put on the committee. One Peterborough Trustee and the Otonabee-South Monaghan Trustee are also on the ARC, but they don’t have a vote, because ultimately the decision belongs to the Board of Trustees as a whole, and they’ll get their chance to vote later when ARC’s recommendations are presented to the Board. A KPR administrator is also put on the committee in a non-voting role, assigned to contribute any information the ARC might want or need. A city councillor and a businessperson from Ashburnham Ward are also on the committee, and do have a vote.

The group gets an initial briefing and a chance to meet one another in January 2011. They plan to get together once a month for the upcoming year. In addition, there will be four public meetings. The first public meeting, in February 2011, is an information session, giving the public the same facts and options that the ARC will be considering, and giving the members a chance to introduce themselves to the public.

When KPR gives the group its Terms of Reference and Reference Criteria, they outline an 18-month timeline for the process before their recommendations get to a final vote by the Trustees. They include a copy of Planning and Possibilities in the package, but they also provide real demographic facts and projections regarding demand for public schools, instead of the manipulated graphs that document uses. They also present the committee with at least one suggested solution. And they make it clear that the committee has the power to come up with and consider as many alternative solutions as they like.

The administration decides to present two options at the outset:

Option 1)  Close TASSS and sell the property to developers, who will likely demolish part of the complex and contruct another tract of seniors-oriented condos around the remainder, completing the north Ashburnham retirement village. Put some of the money into refurbishing Armour Heights and King George and toward the maintenance costs the under-enroled schools incur in excess of provincial funding levels. Send students living north of Parkhill to Adam Scott, those between Parkhill and Maria to PCVS, and those south of Maria to Kenner. North Shore kids also go to Kenner. Take all moveable assets out of the school and redistribute them among the other high schools in town as needed.

Positives? Keeping all three elementary schools financially viable, as well as boosting enrolment at Kenner.

Negatives? Losing the east side high school, leaving no schools of any kind in the northeast corner of the city, thereby ensuring that it will remain a retirement haven for many years to come.

Option 2) Move the Armour Heights grade 7 and 8 students to TASSS, and consolidate King George and Armour Heights JK-6 students into one of the buildings. North Shore stays as is.

Positives? Intermediate students get access to the TASSS facilities. TASSS becomes somewhat more viable to maintain. There’s one full neighbourhood elementary school instead of two partly empty ones.

Negatives? TASSS still carries a lot of excess space, as we’ve added less than 50 students per grade. If we lose King George, we lose a historic building. And now there’s only one elementary school for the seven kilometer stretch between Trent and Landsdowne, so there’s not much neighbourhood feeling, even if travelling times aren’t much greater than they were before. And North Shore’s dropping enrolment hasn’t been dealt with.

The ARC discusses the ins-and-outs of these options in detail for a few months. Reading through Planning and Possibilities, they pick up the idea that community partnerships are an important part of school futures. Reading the Early Years study, they get even more good ideas. By spring, they come up with some other alternatives, which they present to the school communities at a second public meeting, in May.

Option 3) Split TASSS in half, reducing student capacity to 600. Enter into a partnership with the city of Peterborough to turn the other half into a community center. Separate the buildings, parking lot and property so the raucous teens won’t frighten the toddler playgroups and seniors using the space (and vice versa). Look for partnerships with early childhood education providers to set up pre-school programs in the unused wings of all three elementary schools.

Positives? Each community gets to keep its school, and make even more use of it than before.

Negatives? Partnerships open up a whole new can of worms. What if appropriate deals can’t be struck? How long would the leases be? What happens if there’s friction between the different user-groups? How do we deal with insurance? What do you do if one of the partners pulls out unexpectedly?

Option 4) Split TASSS in half, as above. Add a French Immersion stream to Armour Heights, stemming the exodus of gifted and privileged students across the river. Look for pre-school partnerships for King George and North Shore only.

Positives? Enrolment losses at Armour Heights turn into gains. French Immersion becomes a more viable option for the expanding south-east neighbourhoods. Current FI families don’t have to trek all the way across town to get their kids to school. Enrolment pressure is taken off Edmison Heights. King George’s pre-school partnership becomes a pilot project, a test case with less on the line.

Negatives? The French Immersion program is going to be small to start with, and there will have to be split-grade classes all the way along the line. It’s tough to start a bilingual culture where none has ever existed. And the Immersion graduates from Armour Heights won’t be going to TASSS – they’ll be going to Adam Scott. Moreover, the same doubts about partnerships from option 3 remain, even if in less quantity, and now there are three kinds of changes to be made in the network, further complicating the equation.

The public provides plenty of feedback on these options to the committee at the May meeting and beyond. The ARC continues to meet regularly on their own all summer and devotes all their energy to mapping out plausible alternative futures. In October they hold the third public meeting, this time to present projected scenarios in as great detail as they’re able, to report on discussions KPR staff has had with pre-school providers, the Ministry, and the city, and to discuss the results of the French Immersion interest survey that was conducted after the second meeting. The public provides further feedback, and the committee returns to the table for another few months worth of meetings.

In February 2012 (right about now) they feel they’ve made as much progress as they can. They hold a vote as to which option to pursue. It’s a sealed ballot, but we can guess what some of the votes might be.

North Shore families want to keep TASSS open. They like the remote location of the school, and they’re nervous about their teens going to Kenner, where there’s easy access to commercial areas to distract them. They’re all for a partnership with the city for a community center if it will keep TASSS open. However, they themselves won’t be using the center, and it’s not their municipality that has to get on board to make it work. They’re willing to try a pre-school at North Shore, but they suspect that demand for the service in a rural area isn’t going to be huge, and are hoping that North Shore will soon be getting the Bailieboro students, if South Monaghan closes. If neither comes to fruition, they’re aware that they may have to come up with some other idea in the near future if the township’s population continues to decline and they want their school to remain viable.

King George and Armour Heights families are going to fight just as hard for their own schools, which they strongly associate with their neighbourhoods, even though the buildings are barely half a kilometer apart. Armour Hill is a significant psychological as well as geographic barrier. Young parents from central East City have heard about the review, and made their feelings known as well. It appears that there’s more interest in French Immersion in Ashburnham Ward than KPR had previously thought. The King George school community is willing to try to pursue the pre-school wing as a pilot project with the support of KPR staff, who are willing to give it a chance as a test case for the concept.

The TASSS community is divided as to the benefits of turning half of their property and building over to the city. They’ve become accustomed to the luxury of space and lack of competition for facilities. They would prefer an intermediate wing to a partnership. Other partnership options are suggested along the way, with Trent, Fleming and the Catholic Board. But the city-run community center seems to make the most sense, as there are next-to-no recreational facilities of any kind in the area, a huge seniors population with free time on their hands, a walking path leading straight to the school, and athletic fields that are already used in the summer months by community sports leagues. The greenhouses make a natural fit, and access to them will have to be shared.   

The Ashburnham councillor on the ARC is interested in making something happen in conjunction with city hall, and has addressed the Parks and Recreation Board about the possibilities. It’s his neighbourhood, and he’s already heard support for the community center concept from his constituents of all ages. The local businessperson, keen to promote development in the area, is also positive on the idea.

The vote is called. A recommendation is made. The recommendation is presented at a fourth public meeting, in March of 2012. Members of the public again give their feedback. The ARC meets again to revisit and fine-tune their recommendation in light of community feedback. In May they present it to the Board of Trustees. In June the KPR administrators make their own presentation to the Trustees on the subject, offering their analysis and contributing their professional perspectives on the innovations the ARC has proposed.

The public has the summer to respond with their views, while the forces proposing the partnerships have time to pursue them, to find out how feasible they actually are. In the meantime, the South Monaghan review process has begun, and updated information as to which way that process is likely to go (closure or partnership) is added to the record.

In September of 2012, the Trustees take a final vote at their regular monthly Board meeting. There are no last-minute changes, no surprises, nobody pressuring them to make a snap decision. They can defer the vote if they like. They thank the committee members for their time, their dedication to their communities, and their innovative thinking.

Who can say what the final decision would be in such a scenario?

What we can be sure of is that it would be decision made by the people who pay for the schools, who use the schools, and who live in the neighbourhoods. The process is democratic, not autocratic. As a result, the ideas are innovative, the review is long and complex, and co-operation between various community elements is required.

The end result is that everyone moves forward together as the school network on the east side of the Otonabee is updated for a community-oriented future.

That’s about as happy an ending as we could ask for to “The ARC That Should Have Been.” Everyone loves a good romance, don’t they?

So much nicer than the tragedy of Peterborough losing its community cornerstone as a result of the black comedy of KPR errors.

Can’t we just forget about the botched mess of the actual secondary school accommodation review, and start afresh on this one?

What do you say, Ms. Green, Ms. Broten?

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