Schools need to open up to community

  • August 25, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - When 11-year-old Madison Wood first started kindergarten at Toronto’s Our Lady of Wisdom Elementary School, her mother enrolled her at the school for a specific reason: an after-hours enrichment program featuring dance, drama and arts.

Pam Wray, 40, said Madison gained confidence after meeting students from different ages and participating in Irish dance, judo and the homework club.

“She got to know a lot of other students in school, even before she was there full-time in Grade 1,” Wray said.

Another bonus, she said, was that it was a kind of one-stop shop of after-school activities which saved the family travelling time.

Supporters hail Our Lady of Wisdom as a model “community hub” for schools facing declining enrolment and seeking innovative ways to keep their doors open.

Community hub schools are used by non-profit and community groups after school hours and provide services such as sports programs, dance and theatre.

But a new report says expanding this model will be a challenge. The provincial coalition of community groups SPACE (Saving Public Access to Community Space Everywhere) and the non-profit community organization Social Planning Toronto said there are barriers to having more community access to schools, including high user fees, lack of available space and a complicated permit process. The groups released the report “Progress and Pitfalls: A review of community use of schools and access to municipal spaces” on June 17. Its findings are based upon 358 survey responses from organizations across Ontario.

According to the study, community use of schools is now “more stable and predictable” compared to the early 2000s as a result of provincial government funding for these programs.

Fifty-eight per cent of those surveyed said municipal permit fees remained stable and one per cent reported a decrease in fees. The report also found 32 per cent of organizations reported an increase in their school space.

But the study found 26 per cent of school permit holders had to cancel or reduce programs because of high permit fees or lack of space and facilities. Also, 16 per cent of organizations reported an increase in permit fees. Forty-one per cent of those surveyed with municipal permits said fees increased last year and 22 per cent reported a decrease in the use of school space, according to the study.

Meanwhile, 55 per cent of organizations using school space reported that permit rules and regulations were “unclear.”

Most of the survey respondents are established community groups and non-profit organizations. Also, more established agencies tend to hold school permits rather than newer ones, according to the study.

Among its recommendations, the report said the Ontario government should increase funding for community use of schools, ensure school boards lower fees and increase available space throughout the year, including summer weekends, evenings and after school.

But education ministry spokesperson Patricia MacNeil said the government has been providing the community with greater access to schools over the past few years, with annual funding of $20 million from 2004 until 2007. This year, MacNeil said $33 million will be invested in community use of schools to ensure after hours access, lower fees and support.

The ministry has also set aside $5.1 million for not-for-profit organizations this year to have access to 150 priority schools across the province, especially in areas with high poverty rates, she added.

But in terms of a uniform provincial fee for all public schools to be enforced by the ministry, MacNeil said that’s up to the school boards.

Paula Peroni, president of the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association, said she supports community use of schools, but not a standard user fee for all school boards. Different types of expenses are specific to each board, she said. For instance, Northern Ontario boards have higher heating costs.

A copy of the report can be found at .

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