‘Ottawa’ Public School Trustees Say They will Try to Spare Schools from Closure in their Wards
Public school board trustees plan to ask their colleagues to spare three of the eight Ottawa schools targeted for closure.
It’s an indication of what’s in store as the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board begins as many as four nights of debate on a complicated package of school closures and program changes.
Staffs have recommended that three English elementary schools, one alternative school, three middle schools and Rideau High School be closed. They warn the board can’t afford to keep half-empty schools open.
Even some of the parents who have launched emotional campaigns to save their schools acknowledge theirs is an uphill struggle, given the board’s financial situation. During five months of public consultations, they have catalogued the merits of their particular schools, dissected board statistics on enrolment and population trends, and explained why neighbourhood schools are so important.
The meetings that begin Feb. 13 will be their final chance to make a case to trustees.
Parents should realize that the staff reports are recommendations, said trustee Mark Fisher. Trustees make the final decision. “Our job is just starting. We now have to figure out the right approach and directions, based on what we are hearing and our own knowledge.”
Some trustees have already indicated they will fight to save three of the schools. Here’s a rundown of the political landscape:
Trustee Chris Ellis is helping organize two buses to bring supporters of Rideau High School to the school board meeting. It’s a repeat of the scene in 2009, when Ellis was a parent lobbying against a proposal to close the school, which suffered from declining enrolment even then. Today Rideau is only 43 per cent full. Staff say the school can’t offer the variety of programs students need. They recommend students be redirected to Gloucester High School, which is also less than half full.
The Vanier Community Association and city councillors Mathieu Fleury and Tobi Nussbaum have jumped into the debate, saying the school is a “community hub” that is important to the neighbourhood. Trustees will be sensitive to arguments about what’s best for some of the high-risk teenagers at the school, which has a high proportion of students who are refugees, from low-income families or of aboriginal, Inuit or Métis backgrounds.
“I’m optimistic,” says Ellis. “Other trustees seem receptive to the arguments I’ve been making.”
Ellis also plans to introduce amendments that would change boundaries if Rideau is closed, so students from Manor Park, Vanier and the western part of Overbrook would be redirected to Lisgar Collegiate.
Brian Spencer, in the red hat, and Ferni Jimenez, right, enjoy a walk at Mud Lake with fellow students of Regina Street Public School. Jean Levac / Postmedia News
Regina Street Public School
The trustee for the area, Theresa Kavanagh, supports keeping the school open. Boundaries could be redrawn, or Regina could be turned into an alternative school focusing on outdoor education, which is the latest proposal pitched by some parents, says Kavanagh. Either option could result in more children at the low-enrolment school. “I’m not trying to keep open half-empty schools,” says Kavanagh. She recognizes that it’s a game of dominoes, with changes at one school affecting enrolment at others. “We’ll try to work something out.”
Parents say an alternative outdoor-ed school would be a first for the city and could draw students from across the district. The Mud Lake Conservation area is in the school’s backyard, and lessons students learn there are already woven into most of the subjects taught at the school. School council chair Heather Amundrud says many of the parents at Regina would embrace the alternative school program principles, which include a non-competitive environment, mixed-grade classes and opportunities for children of different ages to work together, innovative teaching methods and lots of parental involvement.
Staff say changing programs or boundaries to draw more students to Regina would simply be robbing Peter to pay Paul by reducing enrolment at other schools.
J. H. Putman middle school
Trustee Anita Olsen Harper says she will argue in favour of keeping J.H. Putman open. It’s one of three middle schools targeted for closure as the board moves to get rid of that grade configuration. The school has strong support from students, parents and the community, offers a rich variety of programs and clubs, and does not have low enrolment, she says.
But whether J.H. Putman will get a stay of execution or just a temporary reprieve remains to be seen. Parents and kids at Putman have powered a strong lobby campaign. Their criticism of the proposal to send many of the children back to Agincourt Elementary led staff to modify their thinking. Now staff support delaying the closure of Putman until an addition can be built at Agincourt to house some of the students. That idea appears to have traction, with board chair Shirley Seward saying it’s a sensible approach.
Leslie Park Public School
Parents from Leslie Park Public School, backed by the Leslie Park Community Association, have made passionate arguments about the value of neighbourhood schools, and warned that new housing developments in the area may eventually provide children to fill the school. Several parents privately acknowledge they don’t expect the school to remain open.
Several parents are worried about the open-concept design at Briargreen school, where students would be directed if Leslie Park closes, because it’s not ideal for some students with attention or learning disabilities.
Staff revised the original report to recommend that the two specialized autism classes now at Leslie Park be moved to Woodroffe Avenue Public School instead of Briargreen.
Trustee Olsen Harper declined to give her opinion on the future of Leslie Park, Grant Alternative or D. Aubrey Moodie, all schools in her district slated for closure. She may speak about those schools at the meetings next week, said Olsen Harper.
Century Public School
Parent council chair Gemma Nicholson says she has little hope that trustees will spare the English-program school. The debate among some parents has shifted to where students will be redirected when Century closes. The latest staff proposal is for children from Century to be sent to Carleton Heights. That’s too far out of the neighbourhood, say some parents.
Parent Don Doan warns that Carleton Heights will be full if Century students transfer there and will soon have portables in the yard. He can’t understand why Carleton Heights students aren’t instead moved to Century, which is a larger school in an area that is growing more quickly.
Nicholson suggests it would make more sense to send Century children to Sir Winston Churchill school.
Donna Blackburn, the trustee for the area, says it’s regrettable but some schools must close, but staff listened to parents who requested that Century students not be split up and redirected to different schools.
“The bottom line is that not everybody is going to get what they want,” said Blackburn. “All the schools that are closing are special schools, there is no doubt about that.” She has to make decisions that are best for the board as a whole, she said, “not play politics in my own zone.”
Grant Alternative School
Several parents at a board meeting last week told trustees they fear for the future of alternative schools in the district. Enrolment is shrinking, which is why staff recommend closing Grant and transferring students to Churchill Alternative.
The school board has done little to advertise the value of alternative schools, said Carol Ann Hartung, chair of the Churchill Alternative School parent council. Some parents wrongly think alternative schools are for troubled kids, or specialize in special-ed, she said. More parents would choose them if it weren’t left to “word of mouth or chance” to find out what alternative schools offer, she said.
If Churchill takes all the students from Grant, the school would immediately be full, she said. Grant parents have also lobbied to keep their school open.
Trustee Olsen Harper declined to give her opinion on the future of Grant, Leslie Park or D. Aubrey Moodie, all schools in her district slated for closure. She may speak about those schools at the meetings next week, said Olsen Harper.
D. Aubrey Moodie Intermediate, Greenbank Middle School
There does not appear to be as much controversy over the closure of these schools, if the lack of strong public lobby campaigns on their behalf is any indication.
Meetings on western area schools
Monday, Feb. 13: Trustees listen to public delegations and debate the Western Area Review report, which recommends seven school closures and changes to programs among 26 schools in the west end of the city.
Where: 6 p.m. at the board office, 133 Greenbank Rd. If the meeting doesn’t finish, it will continue at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 14.
Meetings on Eastern area schools
Wednesday, Feb. 15: Trustees listen to public delegations and debate the Eastern Secondary Review Report, which recommends closing Rideau High School. Where: 6 p.m. at the board office, 133 Greenbank Rd. If the meeting doesn’t finish, it will continue at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 16.