An Urbanist for School Closures

Today, the Edmonton Public School Board will discuss two motion that will aim to provide long-term direction for the board, and its schools, once the moratorium on school closures expires in November. Trustee (and, full disclosure, my good friend) Michael Janz wrote about this a couple of weeks ago, explaining the motions coming forward March 13.

Earlier this year, the board accepted a series of recommendations from its school closure moratorium committee. They ranged from common sense solutions around problems caused by the funding formula for schools, to forays into city planning, such as providing housing for seniors to “free up” housing for families in mature neighbourhoods. Now, I tend to take a community-oriented, collective view towards most issues, rather than an individualistic one, but that last one is far too down the path of social engineering for my liking, practicalities (or lack thereof) aside.

I consider myself a committed urbanist, and am very supportive of a more dense urban footprint – particularly one that supports mature neighbourhoods, and ensures they are amenable to a diversity of people – especially families. But the idea that schools won’t close, or shouldn’t close, is ludicrous. Consider the following when evaluating whether or not closures are a good idea.

A Shift in Mindset Alone is a Victory
The modus operandi that governed the board in its 2007-10 term needed an overhaul. As an outside observer, it struck me as being, crassly, akin to that of a retail chain – aggressively closing under-performing locations and focusing exclusively on opening new ones in growing areas. Location is a part of providing schools amenable to its users, but this seemed to be done with very little second thought, or consideration to how it affected the users of existing schools.

Should the moratorium end, but have the effect of shifting the mindset of the board, it will be a victory in my mind. The new mindset and approach of the board should not be a knee-jerk approach to closing undercapacity schools, rather it should focus proactively on sustaining schools where it makes sense. Indicators may be a growing number of families, and Area Revitalization Plan or other measures in place that are likely to increase family-friendly housing, or specific characteristics of the school and student body that make it valuable to retain. Examples of that would be a school that serves an identifiable cultural or linguistic group, or one serving a marginalized, at-risk population, one where students would benefit from extra investment and support. An example of this is McCauley School, which was closed in 2010.

Education, Not Merely Location, is What Matters
I’ll admit a bias here in that I did not go to my community school. In fact, from Kindergarten on, I never attended the public school closest to me. The initial reason for this is that my parents placed me in a French Immersion program, which was not offered at the two closest elementary schools. We have no regrets about this. Whatever value being able to walk to and from school may have provided to me is, in my mind, far outweighed by the benefit of being bilingual. Additionally, attending a school and program with a larger catchment area meant I interacted with a larger number of kids. I played on sports teams with the kids from my neighbourhood, but was exposed to a different group throughout the day through my school.

In some cases, the community school may be best for a student, but I don’t see it as a hard and fast rule. The education of the child should always be the first and foremost duty of the school system. You can’t offer every program at every school, and for this reason magnet schools and specialized programs which will draw kids away from their “community school” are important.

Complete, Healthy Communities Go Way Beyond Schools
I understand the argument for a community school from a planning perspective, that many parents will follow schools and other amenities. But a complete, healthy community goes way beyond having a school, and many community-level institutions are struggling. Independent businesses, particularly grocery stores, have given way to larger chains with drawing from several neighbourhoods. Community-based recreation and social activities are giving way to events that draw a crowd from the macro-scale. Even neighbourhood pubs are fading away. There are larger trends happening in most cities to draw activity to a more macro level. Schools alone cannot, and should not, treat it as their job to stop this trend.

Demographics are Destiny
One of the most salient points about population and demographics I heard recently was this – it’s that the key indicator is not a head count, but a household count. This reflects the fact that overall, family and household size is decreasing (this chart traces fertility rate and immigration. Household/family size numbers are more complex). As a hypothetical example, let’s say a school’s catchment are had 100 families in both 1972 and 2012. If the average family in ’72 had 2.5 children and today has 1.7, there would be 250 school age-ish children then,
but only 170 now, even if the household count hasn’t changed.

Of course, this hypothetical example isn’t the truth. Mature neighbourhoods in most cases also have fewer families today than they did then. If demand is going down, it’s going to mean that not every location can be saved.

Given all this, I think the school board will land in the right direction. It will have to go back to closing schools, but will employ a more measured approach. Initiatives underway such as the schools as community hubs effort, and explorations into space sharing, can ensure relevance and value from the schools even if the educational space is decreased.

It should just start and end from the point of what’s best for students. In Edmonton, we like to throw around the term ‘world class’ for, well, every mega-project we want to build. But our public school system is one of the truly, indisputable world class features of our city (I would argue the River Valley system and the Mall are two others). This should continue to be the primary focus of our school system; it’s a contributor to city-building, but not by any means the only party, or the driver of it.

That’s why this urbanist will be happy to support a school board that takes a cautious and measured, yet responsible approach to managing school supply. Even when it has to close some buildings.

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