It's official: the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board is closing eight high schools.

Trustees made a final decision Monday night to close three high schools on the Mountain, three in the lower city and two in Dundas.

Despite a packed house of Barton and Hill Park Secondary supporters, trustees only reversed one major decision. That decision was to close Highland and Parkside in Dundas and try for Ministry of Education funding to build a new high school on the Highland site.

Going into Moday night's meeting, they had planned to close Parkside and move the students to a renovated Highland and not ask the ministry for money for a new school there.

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Hill Park student Cody Uildersma protests the closing of his high school. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Otherwise, the contentious decision to close Barton, Hill Park and Mountain high schools and replace them with a new school southeast of Lincoln Alexander Parkway remained. The board also plans a new school for the lower city.

Students packed the board office, many holding signs with messages such as "We trusted you" and "Hill Park: Our Place, Our Home." Barton and Hill Park supporters rallied outside the board office ahead of the meeting.

Only trustees Lillian Orban and Ray Mulholland voted against closing the high schools.

Both said the process was flawed because the board didn't properly debate the staff and accommodation review committee recommendations.

Made voices heard

Matt Gill, a Grade 12 student at Barton, said for months, the Barton community assumed it was safe.

Then at the May 23 meeting, trustees unexpectedly voted to save Sherwood Secondary and close Barton. Students pulled together a last-minute protest, he said.

At last night's meeting, "we had nobody there for us," he said.

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Barton student Ariel Alfonso held a bilingual sign. The English side read We have a voice. Are you listening? (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

"We were put on the chopping block out of nowhere. We had no chance to fight like some of the other schools.  Even when we did come out and speak with our voice, nobody was there to help us."

Kylie Gough, a Grade 12 student and one of the organizers of the Hill Park rally, said she feels "down but not out."

"Until there are no more options left, I'm still going to try. I'll be there fighting until the very end."

Gough hugged a tearful Alyssa Alvey, a 14-year-old ninth grader, as trustees ratified the decision.

"I spent most of my Grade 7 and Grade 8 year convincing my mom to let me go to Hill Park because I'm out of bounds," Alvey said. "She finally said yes and I'm at Hill Park and they decide to close it."

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Hill Park student Ashley LaMontaghe awaits a decision. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

'First school in Canada'

Ariel Alfonso, a 17-year-old Barton student, arrived here from Cuba three years ago.

His English skills were weak, but the school rallied behind him, he said. One teacher had a Spanish-speaking wife and even connected her with Alfonso online so she could help him.

"Barton was my first school in Canada and I want it to be my kids' school."

The decisions are part of a sweeping accommodation review that has seen the board examine all but three of its 17 high schools.

The process is sparked by aging buildings and declining enrolment in most of Hamilton.

Capital priorities

The board hopes to meet a deadline of May 31 to ask the ministry for money to build new high schools.

Trustees heard last night that the board needs more than $87 million to fulfill its capital projects.

Its priorities are, in order:

  • A new 1,250-student high school in the lower city (an estimated $31,374,375) and 1,000-student high school on the mountain ($25,466,000)
  • A new high school in Dundas on the current Highland site
  • An addition to Dalewood in light of the closure of Prince Philip School ($5,839,591)
  • Expanding Saltfleet Secondary ($6,724,148)
  • An addition to Mount Albion ($2,352,841)
  • A new elementary school in Ancaster Meadowlands East ($9,526,020)

The target date for the new high schools is September 2015.

Some of that will be raised through the sale of property and cost savings. The board will know by Thursday how much it will request from the province.