Nfld. & Labrador·Analysis

As one school door closes, another opens

The drop in fortunes for rural schools and the rise for urban ones is strongly connected to profound demographic shifts, John Gushue writes.

They've blended into the background, all of those help-wanted signs around St. John's, to the extent I hardly notice them anymore. I don't even think about how they're connected to one of the greatest demographic shifts in our history.

When I do actually notice those signs — like an enormous billboard I saw onTorbay Road for Kent Building Supplies, which asks for experienced workers while showing a photo of middle-aged (read: formerly retired) employees — I think about the labour market, and how it's changed.

Primarily, I think about how the service economy in St. John's has been growing steadily for years, while the number of younger available workers has been decreasing steadily.

What I haven't been thinking about too much is how this all relates to the education system, and the issues that are playing out before our very eyes.

Indeed, the contrast has become remarkable in just the last few weeks.

Consider this. Parents in five rural communities in eastern Newfoundland learned earlier this month that schools in their midst are recommended to close. Some of them — particularly those with kids at Catalina Elementary and at Swift Current Academy — have been fighting back with vigour.

A hub, if not the heart

The passion in the arguments is clear, and it's sincere, too: if a small community loses its only school, it loses more than a building. It loses a hub, if not its heart, and something that can't be replaced by school buses.

Residents of Swift Current filled a gym this week to speak out against a recommendation to close the community's school. (CBC )

We're likely to hear more about the recommended school closures in the weeks ahead, leading up to the Eastern School District board's final decision. [Even then, no one should ever think that will be the last word on the fate of rural schools in this province. I expect more tumult in the years ahead.]

Compare and contrast those developments with what's been happening in St. John's and area. Earlier this month, Premier Kathy Dunderdale went to Roncalli Elementary in Airport Heights — one of the subdivisions in the northeast Avalon that's been filling up with new streets and young families — to turn a sod on a redevelopment that will cost about $21.7 million.

The upgrade, which will include a significant extension, can't come quickly enough for parents at Roncalli, which must be held together with duct tape; the school's population has doubled in the last generation, and a drive around the area shows there's more growth on the horizon.

Last week, the government made another announcement about another St. John's school. Virginia Park Elementary will be rebuilt on its existing site, to the delight of parents who feared their kids would be bused to another location.

While I'm sure some folks around the bay will gripe and moan about a townie bias in these decisions, the issue boils down to demographics.

Schools in many rural areas are already at or beyond the threshold of sustainability, and that's a bar that's been pretty politically flexible, too. At some point, though, with finite dollars and the expectation of declining populations in small towns, it's very difficult for any school board not to make the painful decision of closing a school.

Far fewer kids

Bear these numbers in mind. In 1986, according to figures kept by the provincial government’s Economic and Statistics Branch, there were 103,970 students between five and 14 years of age.

The current number for that age group, according to a report published in April, was 53,200.

In other words, a drop of almost half.

The decline is even more dramatic when you look even further back as a point of comparison.

Teenage wasteland

School enrolments in Newfoundland and Labrador peaked in the early 1970s, in the wake of the post-war baby boom; in this province, the number of births peaked in the early 1960s. [Here's a link to a piece I wrote in 2005 about the demographic shakeup in our midst.]

Those babies became the teenage bulge that topped out in the late Seventies and early Eighties. In 1981, we had a peak of about 64,000 teens between 15 and 19. We currently have just over 28,000.

Remember that discussion at the top about help-wanted signs? Those numbers explain why we're still seeing so many of them around the St. John's area.

Here's another number that suggests that maybe things are turning around.

A frame from a YouTube video shows children protesting the recommended closure of Catalina Elementary. (CBC )

The government has been doing demographic projections for a number of years, and its middle-of-the-road projections hold that the number of school-age children will actually increase in the coming years. Not by a huge amount, mind you, but the government expects to see that 53,200 climb to about 57,600 by 2026.

Here's the big question, though: where exactly will those kids be living and consequently needing to go to school?

The trend in recent years, borne out by reports as recent as this week's census data, shows that the greatest area of growth has been not so much in St. John's itself, but directly around it, in Conception Bay South, Paradise and the increasingly suburban towns nearby. [Read the archive of our recent Newburbia series for more.] Little towns no more, the lot of them.

This is the struggle that parents and community leaders in Swift Current, Trinity North and countless other communities are facing.

The kids and parents at Catalina Elementary — who have been using social media channels like YouTube to their advantage — have been emphasizing that children have names, not numbers, and while the argument has merit, there's often no getting around the math in rural education.

In the city, a different issue: aging schools that need to be replaced, and newer neighbourhoods far away from existing schools. These are no easy, nor inexpensive, fixes either.