Could rural P.E.I. schools be saved by turning them into 'community hubs'?

The leader of the Green Party on P.E.I. is suggesting, rather than closing rural schools, the province instead turn them into multi-purpose community hubs — housing everything from the local library to health care services to private businesses.

Green leader proposes idea meant to revitalize rural communities

The playground at St. Louis Elementary School, one of five P.E.I. schools recommended for closure. (Krystalle Ramlakhan/CBC News)

The leader of the Green Party on P.E.I. is suggesting, rather than closing rural schools, the province instead turn them into multi-purpose community hubs — housing everything from the local library to healthcare services to private businesses.

"It's the idea that a school is more than just some bricks and mortar," explained Peter Bevan-Baker. "That a school can and should be the focal centre of a community, and be an asset to improve and sustain its vitality."

This week a report from the P.E.I. Public Schools Branch recommended closing five schools, four of which are located in rural communities.

"By incorporating other uses for [these] buildings, I think we can maintain the education aspect … at a local level, and the building can be enhanced, the community can be enhanced," said Bevan-Baker. "Who knows what the possibilities are?"

Pilot recommended in government report

It's not the first time this idea has been proposed on P.E.I.

The only report from the province's Child and Youth Services Commissioner (the position was eliminated just a few years after it was created) included a recommendation the P.E.I. government establish a "full-service school pilot in a rural community … which would be a common access point for services."

"Schools have an infrastructure that lends itself to multi-agency collaboration and community development," commissioner Jeff Clow wrote in his report, issued in 2012. "The school is a piece of real estate the community owns. This leads to the importance of building use after the end of the school day."

Bloomfield Elementary is one of the P.E.I. schools recommended for closure. (Krystalle Ramlakhan/CBC News)

That pilot program has not been created.

A spokesperson for the P.E.I. Department of Education, Early Learning & Culture said in an email that future pilot projects would look at ways to "provide more supports and services to students in schools."

However there don't seem to be any plans to move forward with a plan to create a school servicing the needs of the community as a whole.

Souris plan scrapped 

A plan for a new K to 12 school in Souris, P.E.I., put forward in 2010 originally recommended that building become a provincial pilot for a full-service school, but the idea was scrapped.

Proponent Teri Hall said government initially responded favourably to the idea, "but then there was no follow-through on it."

She said it's her understanding it became too difficult to co-ordinate the many government departments that would have been involved in setting up the hub, including education, justice, health and social services.

Nova Scotia experience

The Nova Scotia government has come up with criteria and legislation to allow schools to become community hubs, although so far none of the proposals put forward has made it to that stage.

Paul Bennett is the co-founder of the Nova Scotia Small Schools Initiative, and has spoken at both Georgetown Conferences on P.E.I. about the hub school model.

"Schools are the social anchors of small communities. When the school goes, so goes the community," said Bennett. "Without a school, you are not attracting young people, you're not raising families, and your future is somewhat imperiled."

Bennett says the energy communities put forward trying to save rural schools slated for closure can be put to much better use developing those schools to suit changing needs in the community.

"So far we've only looked at school closure processes as destructive forces that mobilize people in opposition to changes," he said. "What we've done in Nova Scotia … is we've been trying to round the turn and turn all of that positive, constructive, community-building energy into something that will be sustainable over the long term."

He said a hub school can create offsetting revenues to help education authorities cut down on costs, while at the same time offering rural communities a chance to grow.

Former St. Peters school is halfway there

Bevan-Baker said P.E.I. already has an example of the potential for a hub school, although the school portion itself is gone.

After St. Peters School closed in 2009, the building was taken over by the community. It's now home to several businesses, a library, gym, meeting rooms along with the Red Cross.

P.E.I. Green Party leader Peter Bevan-Baker. (Brian Higgins/CBC News)

"I don't think you need to close the school in order to do that," Bevan-Baker said.

But with a 60-day consultation period before a final decision is made on school closures, he said the clock is ticking.

"There is a short time frame. But I hope government would at least acknowledge the possibility, rather than just shutting things down, of [seeing if] we can do this, can we set up a few pilot projects across the province and allow these rural schools to attempt to have a hub model in place … and produce some of the benefits."