'Very frustrating, kind of heartbreaking': Seeking support for northern Ontario rural schools

Some parents in northeastern Ontario are calling on the provincial government to increase support for rural schools, as many are threatened with closure due to declining enrolment.

Ministry of Education was in Markstay-Warren on Wednesday to get feedback for a new rural education strategy

Stacy Paajanen, Lively District Secondary School parent, believes it is important for students to learn and study close to their homes. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

The past few months have felt like a roller coaster for Stacy Paajanen.

She was told last fall that her son's high school in Lively, Ont., might be closing.

But after outrage poured in from parents and students, Lively District Secondary School was taken off the chopping block due to a bump in enrolment. 

"I sat there and I cried," Paajanen said.

"I think it's scary for the parents and for the children to not know if you're going to be able to attend your local school or if you're going to be able to sell your house because the school, not ours, but a school could close and then your house is worth less. So it's a snowball effect."

That effect is already being felt in rural areas south of Sudbury, Ont.

'A real disservice to those students'

The community of French River does not have an English public secondary school in the immediate area. Students have to get up early to travel to Sudbury or Sturgeon Falls, which are about an hour and a half drive away. 

"You can imagine the impact on a family when you've got a 16-year-old girl trying to get her hair done at five o'clock in the morning in order to catch the bus at six," municipal councillor Denny Sharp said.

"We really feel as a municipality that this is a real disservice to those students and puts them at a disadvantage."

Sharp and Paajanen are calling on the provincial government to provide more support for rural schools.
Durham MPP Granville Anderson is the parliamentary assistant to Ontario's Minister of Education. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Granville Anderson, Durham MPP and parliamentary assistant to Ontario's Minister of Education, held a public consultation meeting about the issue on Wednesday evening in Markstay-Warren, Ont., to get feedback for the government to create a new rural education strategy.

He said declining enrolment is leading school boards to make tough decisions across the province, but there can be benefits for students. 

School boards sharing space should be 'across the board'

"If there's a school within a reasonable distance and it has the programs, and it creates better opportunity than it's something that school boards are encouraged to look at," Anderson said.

"It's not about money. It's about programming and creating the best learning experience possible for kids."

Comments for the new rural school strategy are being accepted online until June 9

Anderson is encouraging school boards to share facilities as much as possible.
Ontario's Ministry of Education held a public consultation meeting on Wednesday evening in Markstay-Warren, Ont., to get feedback on the issues facing rural schools. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

In Markstay-Warren where the consultation took place, Saint Mark Catholic Elementary School and Ecole Publique Camille Perron work in the same building.

"It's an example that they should be using across the board to show that the communities can get out there," Marstay-Warren Mayor Stephen Salonin said. 

"We can keep a school in the area. In that particular example, there are two separate school boards, two different languages working in the same school."

Can't offer programs 'where you don't have the population'

There is a perception that rural schools are at a disadvantage, according to Anderson, but he said students in outlying areas get roughly $1,200 more than their urban pupils

Declining enrolment is a "severe issue" at Sudbury's Rainbow District School Board, according to board chair Doreen Dewar, who added that she does not believe additional funding would fix the problem.

"What kind of music program can you offer in a school with less than 60 kids," Dewar said.
Larry Killens is a Rainbow District School Board trustee for Manitoulin Island. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

"It's very frustrating and it's kind of heartbreaking to know that you just, you can't offer where you don't have the population."

The board decided last February to begin the process of shutting down eight schools.

'Time on bus is not time spent in other clubs'

Larry Killens was the only trustee to vote against the closures.

"It takes a community to raise a child," Killens said.

"That's an old expression, but so true ... It is so important to be apart of community life."

Despite dwindling student numbers, Levack parent David Kurtis said rural communities are not going away and a more viable solution is needed.

"We can't always drive many hours to other schools in large cities," Kurtis said. 

"Time on bus is not time spent in other clubs, athletics as well. I just think it's important to have a whole rounded person at the end of school."

About the Author

Olivia Stefanovich

Reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a network reporter for CBC News based in Toronto. She previously worked in Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter @CBCOlivia. Send story ideas to olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.