Ontario's schools struggle with empty classrooms

By 
  • July 30, 2008

{mosimage}TORONTO - Declining student enrolment will be a key issue this coming school year for Ontario Catholic school boards, says the president of the Ontario Catholic School Trustees' Association.

“There are quite frankly less children and I think, with the exception of four or five boards experiencing some growth, the rest are in declining mode,” Paula Peroni told The Catholic Register.

"We have to look at our school systems and find efficiencies where we can.”

Last year, the Ontario Catholic Schools Trustee Association set up a task force to look at the issue of declining enrolment.

The task force, composed of trustees with the support of school administrators, is still collecting information and looking at the demographics, Peroni said.

A report by the Ontario minister of education's own task force into the issue will complete their report by December while the Ontario Catholic Schools Trustees' Association will have its report ready some time this year, Peroni said.

A 2003 provincial moratorium on school closings was lifted two years ago when the provincial government introduced uniform guidelines for decisions on school closings. Known as school accommodation reviews, the guidelines have established a process for board consultation and evaluation. This process includes review committees and public meetings involving parents, school councils, teachers and the local community.

Annie Kidder, executive director of the independent, parent-led People for Education, said this is part of a national trend. Meanwhile, in Ontario, the group said in its 2008 report that about 300 schools are under review, with close to half of all 72 Ontario boards undertaking such reviews. More than 100,000 students are affected.

The reviews could result in more than 50 public and Catholic school closures in Ontario, Kidder predicted.

Overall enrolment rates in the province have declined by about 90,000 students over the past six years, according to the group’s annual report on Ontario schools. Thirty-one per cent of Ontario’s 72 school boards have experienced enrolment declines of more than 10 per cent over the last six years. Of the 72 boards, 29 are Catholic.

Kidder said schools are closing not only because of fewer students but also due to “a disconnect between the funding formula and the actual size of schools in Ontario.” The formula is based upon the number of students which “makes it hard for boards to keep smaller schools open.”

Among those schools surveyed in the People for Education report, 13 Catholic schools reported declining enrolment, with about 111 schools under review. A review, however, does not mean that schools will close but could mean schools are consolidated.

So far, nine Catholic schools were reported to be closing or recommended for closure this year, including five which have already closed in Oshawa, east of Toronto.

Toronto Catholic District School Board trustee Angela Kennedy said there are about six schools under review in her ward, but it could result in only one of the schools being closed. Some of the issues surrounding these reviews include too few students in one school and too many in another, she said.

“It isn't just about bricks and mortar. It's also about the program and how to provide a good learning experience for everyone,” said Kennedy.

Mary Jo Deighan, spokesperson for the Toronto Catholic board, which is reviewing 18 schools this year, said in a statement that the board will consider a long-term plan that will enhance students' learning experiences and take into account “changing demographics and projected enrolment figures.”

School closings have been “emotionally charged experiences for communities and boards,” as the Ontario Ministry of Education has noted in its school closure guidelines.

Brian Evoy, president of the Ontario Association of Parents in Catholic Education, said there were tensions surrounding school closures during the past two years because of a lack of communication to parents about the process. He said closing schools can be justified given the dwindling numbers of students, but added that alternatives should be explored.

“Some boards need to carefully look at the demographics in the future,” Evoy said from Ottawa. “Let’s not just look at today, but also tomorrow.”

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