Building sustainable communities: Why local schools are key

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February 15, 2009 by realrenewal

by Roger Petry

1. Saskatchewan has entered a long-term growth phase, and local schools are critical to each community’s ability to harness these new opportunities.

Attracting potential employees, professionals,and business people to a community means attracting the entire family. Communities without a local school do not provide the quality-of-life benefits associated with living within walking or cycling distance to school and actively participating in the life of these schools. Schools also provide publicly available facilities and greenspace for recreation, other educational opportunities, and community gatherings.

2. School infrastructure supports community innovation and social development.

The crucial and historic task we currently face is to redefine and re-equip our communities to make them sustainable in the long term. Creative use of public infrastructure for multi-functional purposes is key.With increasing transportation costs, local schools of necessity become a vital hub for life-long education. In cases where school enrolment declines, classroom and other space can be adapted to meet locally identified needs (such as preschool) until such a time as enrolment levels increase (as occurs with changing neighbourhood demographics).

School buildings and land can also be vital to community experimentation and innovation in health and social services, recreation, community gardens/local food production, greenspace and in new building types and materials. These local community learning centres are key public assets for our future and need to be seen as cornerstones of our communities, to be invested in, used and improved.

3. Community connections and volunteerism are an increasingly vital resource.

Closing local schools eliminates community networks that have built up over years and that are key to community competitiveness in the knowledge-based economy. The potential to reduce costs through volunteerism should not be underestimated.In addition, community networks are especially valuable for poorer communities and can be a foundation for economic development that benefits the entire community.

4. The viability of local schools is increasing with technology.

New, low cost networking technologies can be made use of in local school settings to provide high quality learning opportunities. It is worth designing educational programming that take advantage of networking technologies to help provide the advantages of specialized programming while retaining the proven educational advantages of local schools. Familiarity with these technologies is also valuable to students for success outside of school.

5. Eliminating local schools creates unacceptable long-term risks to the public education system.

Selling public assets is not a long-term solution to funding shortfalls and long-term cost pressures. The decision to sell public property is irreversible once the land has been redeveloped and new land in established neighbourhoods is unavailable or priced prohibitively. When the goal is an accessible, high quality public education system, ongoing investment in existing infrastructure is the most cost-effective strategy.

6. Specialized programs become vulnerable when centralized.

When centralized, programs such as French Immersion can become less appealing because of increased transportation time and costs. At the same time, the visibility of these programs, which helps bolster their enrolment and public support, is reduced, making them easy targets for politically expedient cutbacks. Programs such as French Immersion play a vital role in keeping Saskatchewan’s educational opportunities on par with the rest of Canada, and in making our communities attractive. Having specialized programs integrated in local school settings also creates positive synergies.

 

7. Plans that increase dependence on bus and automobile transportation are short sighted.

Long-term plans that eliminate local schools and rely on routine bussing of children expose school systems and governments to ever-increasing transportation costs as the cost of fossil fuels escalates. This situation is potentially catastrophic once a public system can no longer afford these costs and has eliminated its local options. With climate change clearly linked to burning fossil fuels, it is hypocritical for the school system to knowingly increase its dependence in this way, thereby modelling poor decision-making for its students. Students also acquire bad personal habits where opportunities for walking and cycling to school have intentionally been eliminated that would otherwise contribute to long-term physical and mental health.

It is also irresponsible to offload extra travel costs on parents, some of whom do not have the resources or flexibility to travel extra distances to volunteer or attend school functions. These added costs undermine the equality and fairness of our public system.

8. Strong educational outcomes are the bottom-line.

The goal of a public education system should be achieving quality educational outcomes for all citizens. High educational outcomes are strongly correlated with smaller schools and parent and community involvement. Educational outcomes should not be sacrificed; everything in our power should be done to maintain our commitment to these outcomes. With bold, innovative and strategic decision making, which is the hallmark of Saskatchewan, we can achieve this goal long into the future.
Roger Petry specializes in philosophy and sustainable development issues. He teaches at Luther College at the University of Regina.

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