Editorial – Equity in local education

The United Counties of Stormont, Dundas, and Glengarry hosted a rural education conference last week which had a clear message for those concerned about the state of rural education in Ontario – be proactive.

Speaker after speaker addressed issues around internet access, declining enrolment, competition between school boards and an inequity in program opportunities for students. Those factors have been compounded in the past two years by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The fact that this conference took place five years after the largest school board in the region considered 29 schools for closure, including several within in the SDG boundary, is no coincidence. Many of the issues discussed are provincial policy matters that will take lobbying by many parties to improve. On the issue of program equity however, there is change that can be made right now. It will not only help, it will be an easy win for both SDG Counties and the Upper Canada District School Board.

Nine of 11 UCDSB elementary schools in SDG offer Early French Immersion programming. Given our proximity to the National Capital Region, this program was identified as a priority for families in the Counties’ education report, and at the rural education summit. Morrisburg Public and Maxville Public Schools are the only two schools not offering EFI. Families who want early French programming in those two school communities are bused to other schools within the board. In comparison, all UCDSB elementary schools in North Dundas (Nationview, Winchester, and Chesterville) and South Stormont (Rothwell-Osnabruck and Long Sault) have this programming.

The effects of having two schools from the same school board offer two different levels of programming is apparent. According to UCDSB statistics, MPS often runs at 50 per cent of its student capacity, while Iroquois Public – where EFI is offered – runs at or above capacity. Program inequity contributed to MPS being identified for closure five years ago. A provincial moratorium on school closures could end depending on the results of the June 2 Ontario election.

A proactive solution to addressing some of the program inequity, and to prevent the need for closure is program equity. Offer EFI at all UCDSB elementary schools in SDG. That one decision would not only promote education equity, it would address capacity issues as about 35 per cent of the students attending IPS are from the MPS catchment area. Instead of one school bursting at the seams and another at risk of closure, there would be two schools at about 75-80 per cent capacity each.

Politicians, educators, and anyone with an interest in rural public education were warned by keynote speaker Paul Bennett not to wait for a school closure process to act to save and improve their schools. SDG and South Dundas officials working to bring equity in early French programming would be a good first step in that improvement process.

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