Rural education summit organizers look forward to next steps in SDG

CORNWALL – Rural education advocates, municipal politicians and more than 200 interested people attended a one-day virtual symposium on rural education hosted by SDG Counties February 3.

The event was held as the next step following the Counties’ report on rural education released and adopted in November 2021.

“I am incredibly proud of how the event went,” said SDG Counties councillor Kirsten Gardner. “There was a broad discussion that absolutely highlighted the issues that surround rural education equity.”

Gardner, and Councillor Stephanie Jaworski were part of the organizing team to bring the rural education symposium to fruition.

“I think the Symposium was a significant step in moving this discussion forward and to the forefront,” Jaworski explained. “We had strong registration numbers and we are at over 250 views on the YouTube link. There were questions from the attendees throughout. I’ve also received many emails and messages since the event, thanking SDG for holding the Symposium and looking forward to future networking.”

The two SDG councillors delivered the first of three presentations at the symposium, highlighting case studies of schools from each of the three counties: Glengarry, Stormont, and Dundas. Each study showed the effect that program differences and school use have on the viability of those schools and the community.

Doug Reycraft from the Community Schools Alliance spoke about the social and economic impact of small schools in Ontario. His presentation highlighted that Ontario had more than 700 communities with 10,000 orless people – 300 of which have no school. Reycraft explained the effect that a school closure can have on a community and also highlighted some of the changes in the closure process since the 2017 closure moratorium was put in place by the Ontario government.

Zorra Township Mayor Marcus Ryan presented an update on the Rural Education Task Force in Southwestern Ontario. The task force has the Thames Valley District School Board working with rural municipalities in Oxford, Elgin, and Middlesex Counties, parents and even students to develop a rural education strategy. That final plan is due to be released in March 2022. Ryan told the approximately 250 virtual attendees of the symposium of the process the board and counties took for consulting with residents, and some of the feedback that had been received in the process.

Keynote speaker Paul Bennett addressed some of the deficiencies with the school closure process in Ontario, some of the successes groups he has worked with have had in saving their rural/small schools, and of strategies for groups to counter school boards when a review process has been triggered. Bennett is director of the Schoolhouse Institute and an Adjunct Professor of Education at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Bennett said that in order to try to save a school, a community has to be proactive and look ahead at solutions for schools at-risk of closure by establishing a regional education process.

“Don’t enter into a pupil accommodation review process unless you’ve done that community development exercise ahead of the school board. Don’t let them (school boards) drive the process,” he said.

After the symposium, both Gardner and Jaworski were optimistic about the next steps for SDG Counties to take.

“I’m forever optimistic and dedicated to working on this,” said Gardner. “A rural school symposium was one thing I talked about, when I put my name on the ballot almost four years ago. The fact that it has happened and came together like it did, just reaffirms that we can move this forward if we all work together.”

“I am very optimistic,” Jaworski said, “like most of the folks who are passionate about this issue. That’s why we keep at it! Although individuals and groups have been working on these issues across the province, I think that at this moment in time we are making significant headway in connecting folks across the province. I think it’s the most cross-province momentum we’ve seen in the issue in at least a decade.”

Gardner added that she is “less optimistic when organizations spend energy protecting their turf, rather than make things better, February 3rd was an incredibly optimistic day.”

Looking and moving forward at SDG, the two councillors will be working at creating a standing committee of council dedicated to education.

“That was a recommendation of the (SDG) report,” Jaworski explained. “I think it is a vital step in keeping the momentum going in SDG and building on the work we’ve done. I certainly would like for a mandate and terms of reference for such a committee to be formalized during this term of Council.”

Gardner agreed. “There is more work to be done and I am hoping my colleagues will agree that a standing committee needs to be created to ensure that momentum, ideas and solutions are not lost.”

Both councillors said a longer term plan is needed and that the report commissioned in 2021 was the starting point.

“The provincial government needs to come to the table for a discussion and have a willingness to actually work on it, instead o f patting us on the head,” Gardner stated. “There were a lot of concepts brought forward that could be implemented and included with the information we have already collected.”

Jaworski said the Counties’ report on rural education by Monika Ferenczy will be presented to the Ministry of Education before the end of March this year.

Video from the three-and-a-half hour long symposium is available at the SDG Counties website.

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