Rural Reckoning: Losing schools means losing families
Cape Breton teeters between closing schools as populations shrink, and saving them to keep kids
Out-migration has hit hard in many sectors of Cape Breton, but perhaps none so hard as the school system.
Since 2003, 26 schools across the island have closed. Now, 51 remain, but 19 of those are being considered for closure.
By next April, the school board will decide which will be shut down. The schools are spread across the CBRM and the threat of closure has thrown people in their home communities into an uproar.
Brett Hanham, Loydette MacDonald and Justin Mahon are from Louisbourg, where George D. Lewis School is threatened. They've joined the school review process to have a say in its future.
It's the town's only school, with 80 students from grades Primary to Nine.
Mahon has two children, an eight-year-old who attends George D. Lewis and a four-year old who starts school next year. If the George D. closes, Mahon worries about his oldest child.
"My kid has a learning disability so he would be put in a bigger school, which would mean that he would be pushed aside. In Louisbourg we have teachers that don't even take their break and take time to help him read and he has come up," he said.
Once that's gone, that is the heart of the community.- Kevin Saccary
"He's almost reading at the level he should be reading at now because of these teachers and a small school. This is the heart of our community."
Most of MacDonald's career has been spent in community development. "We have businesses, we've had people come to us and say, 'You know, we'll have to shut our doors.' We have school kids that come into our businesses every day and it's going to impact us greatly. We are going to lose our small families."
Hanham, 29, doesn't have children at George D., but says losing the school will affect his future.
"We understand that you can't save every school and that with the declining populations, especially in the CBRM, that changes do have to be made, but this is almost more than dollars and cents. This is our community," he said.
"I don't know where I'm going to be, but if there is no school [there's] probably not a chance that I will end up settling in Louisbourg."
The three watched what happened to a nearby community after its school was closed. "Main-a-Dieu had 300 families when they had a school, says Mahon, "and then they lost their school and now I don't think they'd have 100."
MacDonald agrees. "They lost their library. They lost their Credit Union. They lost their store. They lost their gas station. and they lost their young families."
Invest in schools
Kevin Saccary is the deputy mayor of the CBRM. He's also the councillor for Louisbourg and his home town of Port Morien, where the local elementary school is being considered for closure.
Saccary has been fighting to keep rural schools open for twenty years. Instead of closing schools in areas where populations are declining, Saccary thinks the province should spend money to keep them open and keep their communities viable.
"The provincial government needs to play a larger role in working with rural and suburban areas to help them maintain a quality of life. Once you close a school anywhere, it's pretty difficult for a province or a local school board to put that back," Saccary says.
"Once that's gone, that is the heart of any community. I've experienced businesses such as convenience stores and small corner stores in just about every single community. The windows are boarded up; now there's nothing.
"When you take the school out, it's like the last person closing the door."
In the battle between provincial budgets and communities struggling to survive, Loydette MacDonald says the consequences of closing a school in a small rural community is high.
"Losing our school is not just going to shut a building down. It's going to shut our community down."