Sunday, 12 February 2012

The ARC That Should Have Been, part seven: Thomas A. Stewart, East City, and the Centre for Individual Studies

In the previous four posts we’ve taken stock of Peterborough’s northern, central, western, and southern neighbourhood elementary-secondary school networks, all of which seem to be stable, though the situation at Kenner isn't perfect. Now we turn our attention to the east side of the Otonabee.

In the nineteen-century, the village of Ashburnham was a political entity unto itself. Around the time that Peterborough was made a city and the current PCVS building went up, the village of Ashburnham was annexed by Peterborough and became known as East City,” officially Ashburnham Ward. For most Peterborough residents, East City means the Liftlock and the Canal. Some of us might go across the river for the Museum, the Folk Festival, the PowWow, or tobogganing on the awesome slope of Armour Hill. The view from up top of the hill is inspiring, affording a view of all the surrounding townships.

Ashburnham Ward is really three proximate but distinct neighbourhoods – the TASSS-Trent neighbourhood north of Parkhill, the pre-war East City between Parkhill and Maria, and the south-eastern area centered on Lansdowne, including the Marsdale subdivision north of Lansdowne and the Coldsprings/Collison Heights area south of Lansdowne, in which Otonabee Valley public school is located. These areas stretch along a long, narrow strip of territory on the east bank of the river which has been kept narrow by the Trent canal, the city limit, and its position on the wrong side of Peterborough from Toronto.

The central East City area has a small-town feeling, with idiosyncratic, small-scale houses, many on deep lots originally meant for gardening. The unique waterfront residential areas around Wallace Point on Little Lake and up the Otonabee just south of TASSS have an homey atmosphere you won’t find anywhere else in Peterborough. The Rotary Trail has been a boon to East City, allowing easy biking, blading, or baby-buggying from Ecology Park near Beavermead all the way up to Trent, and thence to Lakefield.

The character of East City in recent years has been much like contemporary small-town Ontario, dominated by retirees. In central East City, some of those retirees have been selling their small, manageable houses to young couples in recent years, and the area’s character is starting to show the change, with more small children around. The area north of Parkhill, however, remains the domain of the grey-haired. Retirement high-rises greet you as you enter the Rotary Trail at Parkhill, and what follows is two consecutive kilometers of retirement condominiums before you get to TASSS. Across the road from TASSS is a golf course. Behind the golf course is the canal.

It’s true – TASSS was built in the middle of a retirement community.

Sandwiched by Trent in the north, seniors to the south, the Otonabee to the west and the golf course to the east, TASSS has had virtually no natural walking community until the recent development of the Frances Stewart subdivision. Nor is there any commercial district, or any potential for further development in the immediate area.

Located just off the county roads at the north end of town, TASSS was built to serve large numbers of rural students, and did so admirably in the not-so-distant past, including many from as far away as Omemee.

Planners back in the late-sixties were perhaps feeling overly optimistic about the potential for growth in the area around the new Nassau Mills campus of Trent University. In fact, Peterborough’s growth since then has been almost entirely in the opposite direction, leaving the north-east with a semi-rural feel in places.

Today TASSS serves students from only three feeder schools: Armour Heights, King George, and North Shore in Keene.

The peculiarity of TASSS’s location is matched by the peculiarity of the proximity of Armour Heights and King George to one another. In a curious bit of planning, Armour Heights was built on the north side of the same hill that King George occupies the south side of. In general, students from north of the hill attend Armour Heights, while those on the south side attend King George, but all attend Armour Heights for their intermediate years. Those living way down south of Lansdowne, however, attend Otonabee Valley, and from there go to Kenner. Both Armour Heights and King George have a capacity of about 300 but currently host about 200. The actual KPR planners have already proposed closing one of the two schools in last May’s accommodation report.

One of KPR’s first projects in the Peterborough area was to build North Shore Public School in Keene, consolidating a number of older, small rural schools. North Shore was built to accommodate 429 students, but attendance has been dropping steadily since then and is now, like its Armour Road counterparts, down to about two-thirds capacity with 285. Moreover, these numbers might continue to drop because the number of tax-payers in Otonabee-South Monaghan township has actually been falling in recent years, according to the Trustee allocation chart – as has the population in all the townships east of Peterborough. KPR is currently considering closing South Monaghan Public and directing students from the Bailieboro area to North Shore as well. 

KPR projections

per grade

King George (JK-6)

Armour Heights (JK-8)

North Shore (JK-8)


total elementary


The most important information you’ll glean from the chart above is the massive discrepancy between the capacity of TASSS and the capacity of its feeder schools. If TASSS currently has over six hundred students, some of them must be coming from elsewhere (including members of the Peterborough Petes, who are sent to TASSS), or all of them must stay for five years, because the “half-total” capacity of the feeder schools is only 570. This is by far the worst match in the city. There is no way for TASSS to be more than half-full under the current configuration, even if the three elementary schools were to be overflowing with portables. 

If North Shore students weren’t being directed to TASSS, there would be no sense in maintaining the high school at all. King George and Armour Heights grads from central East City could walk across the London Street footbridge to PCVS, which could easily accommodate the tiny graduating grade 8 class, numbering less than 50 this year, while students from the TASSS area could walk across the bridge by Joanne’s Health Foods to reach Adam Scott, which is only one kilometer from TASSS.

Even with North Shore students being bused in, TASSS will likely take in only about 70 grade nines next year, while about 150 might graduate from grade twelve, resulting in the rapid decline in enrolment reflected in KPR’s predictions. The estimate of 385 for 2014 is roughly equal to the “half-total” for 2009-10, just as one would expect. This number might be expected to drop still further, given that the elementary numbers have declined even more since 2009-10. Eventually, we might see the East City elementary schools start to fill up again as today’s newborns hit kindergarten, but any increase there is more than ten years away at TASSS.

The fact is that TASSS was built to accommodate a large contingent of rural students that is unlikely to be there again in the foreseeable future. There’s no room for residential expansion in its immediate vicinity. Trent hasn’t turned into a large institution. Demand for houses in the neighbourhood is almost nil. The highway access is getting better, but there’s no commercial area around. Eventually the city might annex the area around Parkhill East up to Television Road, but there are no plans for significant new development there.

On top of the over-size problem, TASSS is a strangely-constructed building. Like Adam Scott, it was put up on a tight budget, and its facility condition index rating is nearly as low. Oddly, TASSS is really two buildings put together, with separate heating and cooling systems. Moreover, it’s filled with asbestos, and it’s going to cost over a million dollars to get it out of there. And another half-million to make the place accessible by wheelchair. As result of the real KPR administrators’ power-play, these renovations are already underway.

A birds-eye view of TASSS

On the plus side, the school property is large enough to host some good playing fields for athletics. There are greenhouses as well, a unique feature. There’s some good shop space, and a fine auditorium.

So what do you do with the biggest school in town, a relic of the 1960s baby-boom, whose extensive hallways are only sparsely populated with teens, whose massive parking lot hosts only a few buses each morning, and whose maintenance costs are now way out of line with the funding provided on a per-student basis, as identified by KPR documents?

Can we find more rural students to direct to TASSS? Bridgenorth is already being sent to Adam Scott, and the Millbrook-Cavan area to Crestwood. But what about points north?

Here’s the chart showing the Lakefield District Secondary regional school network, which includes Apsley, Buckhorn and Warsaw as well as Lakefield’s Ridpath Public. Take any of these feeder schools away from LDSS, and its student population would now be down to 50% capacity. Moreover, Lakefield District is a township school, serving the townships of Lakefield-Smith-Ennismore, North Kawartha, Douro-Dummer, and Galway-Cavendish-Harvey. Why bus students even further into a suburban setting when Lakefield District has plenty of space? LDSS is likely to be facing further declines in enrolment as it is, with the number of taxpayers in these four townships collectively dropping at the rate of half a percent per year, according to the Trustee allocation chart, and it already loses French Immersion students from Ridpath who proceed to Adam Scott for their intermediate and secondary education.

KPR projections

per grade

Apsley (JK-8)
Warsaw (JK-8)
Buckhorn (JK-6)
Ridpath (JK-6)
Lakefield Inter. (7-8)

total elementary

With redirecting rural students from LDSS not a good option, some years ago KPR tried moving the Centre for Individual Studies and some administrative offices to TASSS – including that of former TASSS principal Rusty Hick when he was Superintendent of Operations. CIS seemed to be a good fit at first, since TASSS has extra space and plenty of hands-on facilities. But the marriage wasn’t an entirely happy one.

CIS students are largely “problem students.” In general, they’re not attending CIS out of choice – they’ve been sent there by the Board to get their acts together because their previous schools didn’t want them anymore, typically due to poor attendance and failure to earn credits. Their lack of performance in their regular schools may have been due to a variety of family and personal problems. It’s tough for any school principal to welcome teens who’ve been kicked out of other schools, let alone when some of them may have developed further problems with chemical dependencies.

Moreover, TASSS is distant from the central and southern areas of the city in which most CIS students live. If they couldn’t get to their own neighbourhood schools regularly, how is their attendance going to be if they have to get all the way up to TASSS?

Thankfully, the 200-plus CIS students and their teachers a few years ago found a home on Bonnacord Street, just south of Jackson Park and east of Monaghan, in some unused Sir Sandford Fleming space beside the skateboard park. Teachers there have made use of the adjacent Bonnacord Community garden space and Jackson Park for outdoor education. The location is ideal – walking distance from downtown, but not right in the core where temptation may too easily strike during school hours, and away from regular secondary schools, giving CIS the ability to keep track of its students and eliminating any potential negative impacts on KPR’s regular-stream students.

The actual KPR administrators, of course, want to change this setup. They want to move CIS to the PCVS site, creating an educational ghetto right across from city hall, and putting at-risk students right back in the middle of temptations.     

So how else can we justify keeping TASSS, if we can’t import any more rural students, and CIS has been tried and rejected?

Ah ha! The Integrated Arts program! If we can pluck that program from PCVS, we can oblige hundreds of students from all over the city to hike all the way up to TASSS for their specialty programming. And if PCVS’s student population is thus reduced, why bother keeping the institution alive at all? We can just move CIS there! So we engineer a rigged city-wide secondary accommodation review pitting one city neighbourhood against another, putting the public on the defensive and distracting them so they won’t be able to imagine the accommodation review that should have taken place. And we’ll be careful not to include CIS in our review, or even mention it.

But wait a minute – let’s not forget that we’re not the actual KPR administrators. We’re not going to play any Machiavellian games, or disrupt the existing fully-functional school networks in other parts of town. We’re not going to attempt to take away Town Ward’s last remaining school, the most successful and venerable school in the entire Board, thereby inviting public outrage, legal action, and tax-revolts.

We’re going to do the logical and sensible thing and recommend to our imaginary Director of Education and fictional Trustees a full-scale accommodation review to determine the future of TASSS and its three feeder schools, King George, Armour Heights and North Shore.

It’s clear that the status quo on the east side of the Otonabee doesn’t make sense. Something has to change. Since we’ve got a proper accommodation review policy, we’re going to call a group of representatives together and give them a definite mandate, plenty of time, and accurate information. We’re going to keep Board staff and Trustees in non-voting roles. And we’re going to be up front about our “preferred option.”

We’ll play out this imaginary scenario in the next post.

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