Can robots rescue one North Grenville rural school?

Software developer Brent Lekx-Toniolo builds robots for a living and is now using some entrepreneurial thinking in an attempt to save his daughters' country school.

Parents hope creating a coding and robotic program can save their country school from the chopping block

Addyson Lekx-Toniolo, student at Oxford-on-Rideau Public School, holds a mini robot she programmed with the help of her dad, right, Brent Lekx-Toniolo. (CBC)

Brent Lekx-Toniolo builds robots for a living and now the software developer is using some of his entrepreneurial thinking in an attempt to save his two daughters' country school.

Oxford-on-Rideau Public School is a junior kindergarten to grade six facility in the small village of Oxford Mills, about 68 km south of Ottawa.

It's currently among 12 schools slated for closure within the Upper Canada District School Board, due to low enrolment.

Lekx-Toniolo presented his proposal to the Upper Canada school board at a special meeting in Kemptville on Thursday.

"To set up and run a tech-based learning centre within the school," said Lekx-Toniolo. "So it'll give children as early as kindergarten and up, the opportunity to learn coding and learn about robotics."

Lekx-Toniolo is volunteering his own expertise and research to make this plan a reality and he said the proposal also has the support of other local technology professionals.

Mixing technology with rural life

A small rural school isn't a typical venue for a "state of the art" tech-based learning centre, acknowledged Lekx-Toniolo, but he said the rural environment does offer a unique opportunity to teach children the importance of a balanced lifestyle.

"We want to show the rest of the school board and the rest of the system that tech can mix with rural living. We want to show that a healthy balance for kids between screen time and outside time can be achieved," said Lekx-Toniolo.

He said the proposal has received positive feedback from the Oxford-on-Rideau community.

Lekx-Toniolo's daughter, Addyson showed off a small, ball-shaped robot she had helped program with the help of her dad and a smartphone.

I could just see how this could work with the current curriculum.- North Grenville school trustee Lisa Swan

The board trustee representing North Grenville, Lisa Swan, said she's excited to see an idea that might incorporate science, math and English at the school.

"I could just see how this could work with the current curriculum and make children interested in an area where they might not otherwise be. So thank you very much for thinking outside the box," she said.

Other trustees questioned whether the program would be sustainable and if it might displace teacher positions, thereby contravening union rules.

Steve Clark, MPP for Leeds-Grenville, is calling for the board to stand up to the province and refuse to close rural schools. (CBC)
Leeds Grenville MPP Steve Clark supports Lekx-Toniolo's proposal for Oxford-on-Rideau, but also questions why the board is looking to close a school in one of the fastest-growing areas of eastern Ontario.

"The census clearly shows a significant growth. Why would you want to close a school in an area that's growing the fastest?" said Clark. "Parents have done their job. I hope the school trustees do their job and reject the closures."

Boards across the province are making similar decisions to close schools deemed to be under-populated.

Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown has called for a debate at Queen's Park for a moratorium on rural school closures next Tuesday, March 7.

The Upper Canada District School Board plans to make its decision about school closures on March 23. 

Upper Canada District School Board trustees in Kemptville, March 2, 2017. (CBC)