How our rural school changed one kid’s life

Isaac and Samuel

Isaac Deary (right) clowns around with his little brother, Samuel, on the recent evening when he and his family kindly sat down with me to talk about what a difference Madoc Township Public School had made in his life and learning.

Today I want to tell you Isaac’s story.

Isaac, who is 11 years old (“12 in June,” he proudly announces), and his family moved to our area – Madoc Township, to be precise – just over a year ago. They moved for one reason: because Isaac was having some difficulties at the large public school he attended in the city of Belleville.

‘He was falling through the cracks,” says his mum, Eliza.

When you meet Isaac – as I did one evening this past week – you can tell right away that he is a smart boy. He’s personable, well-spoken, polite and funny. He and his little brother, Samuel, make a very handsome pair, and I think I’m pretty safe in saying that Eliza’s very proud to be their mum. I know I would be if I were her.

Isaac was matter-of-fact when explaining to me why he was having some learning difficulties. “I have trouble,” he said, “getting stuff from here” (pointing at his head) “to here” (pointing to the ends of his fingers, where the finished work comes out). So math, reading and writing are hard for him. I guess you’d call it a mild learning disability – and in his big public school in the city, that was the problem: he needed extra help, but his difficulties were not severe enough for the resources and help that he needed to be directed his way. Hence, “falling through the cracks.” He was “not being challenged to get ahead,” Eliza added. In his large urban school, Isaac was three grade levels behind where he should have been in math and reading.

But then things turned around, thanks to a perceptive teacher, a family willing to make a change, and the wonderful staff and environment at Madoc Township Public School.

A teacher at Isaac’s Belleville school had once taught at Madoc Township PS. She also knew that Eliza owned a property in this area. And she suggested that our school – with its small classes and rural setting – might be a better fit for him. The family took her advice and, last January, moved to north of 7.

The effect of that move on Isaac is amazing. He’s now working at his own grade level in all subjects.

“Wow,” I said when he and his mum told me this. “And this happened in just one year?”

“It happened,” Eliza replied, “in a matter of months.”

Isaac was three grade levels down in reading and math when he joined the Grade 5 class at Madoc Township Public School in January 2016. By the time the school year ended this past June, he was working at a Grade 5 level in everything.

“Wow,” I said again.

What did it?

Well, one, a great teacher: Anna Henderson. She worked hard with Isaac, and pushed him to do his best. “She was very strict,” said Isaac, not looking remotely bothered by that fact. “And she got results,” added his mum.

“Those months felt like years!” Isaac tried again. But the grin on his face belied the hardship he was supposedly complaining about. (You’ll recall that he is 11, going on 12.) Yes, he’d had to work hard, and do extra work at home. But you can tell from the way he talks about it that he’s proud of what he’s been able to accomplish, and that he knows the extra work was worth it.

I was delighted when they told me that the teacher who’d done so much for him was Anna Henderson. Delighted for two reasons: one, because I’ve known Anna – formerly Anna McKinnon – since she was about the age of Isaac’s younger brother, Samuel, who’s in senior kindergarten at Madoc Township Public School. I remember playing Mother, May I? in the yard of the McKinnon home with Anna and her brother and sister many years ago when I was a kid growing up here in Queensborough.

The other reason I was delighted is that it was proof that the tradition of teaching excellence at Madoc Township Public School, about which I’ve written before, carries on to this day. Anna, like me, had classes at MTPS with amazing teachers like Monica Tobin and Gayle Ketcheson and Anna Carman and Sadie Miller and Vera Burnside and Irene Reid and Evelyn Boyle and the late and truly great principal Florence McCoy. Why, here they are!

MTPS teachers

The best teachers ever. Back row, from left: Anna Carman, Sadie Miller, Vera Burnside, Monica Tobin, Evelyn Boyle; front row, from left, Irene Reid, principal Florence McCoy and Gayle Ketcheson.

These teachers were often strict. They demanded that we try to do our best. They challenged us. They helped us. They created a tradition and standard of learning excellence that is doubtless the reason that Madoc Township Public School placed first among all elementary schools in Hastings and Prince Edward counties in a recent survey of students’ reading, writing and math skills.

save-madoc-township-public-school-facebook-page

If you haven’t yet joined this Facebook group, you should. Click here for the link.

Now, this is the point at which I should probably tell you, if you don’t already know, that the local public school board is proposing to close Madoc Township Public School this coming June. If this sounds like a bad idea to you, let me assure you that you’re not alone. (Click on the “Madoc Township Public School” category on the lower right side of Meanwhile, at the Manse’s home page to read all my previous posts about what’s going on. And please also join the Save Madoc Township Public School Facebook page to stay abreast of developments and support the fight the keep the school open.)

This proposal by the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board was what prompted me to ask Eliza if I could sit down with her and Isaac and talk to them about their experience with Madoc Township Public School. Eliza had told me a little of Isaac’s story at a recent meeting of the committee charged with studying the closure proposal. “Gracious!” I said in response. “You’re the poster family for why this school needs to stay open!”

So there we were at the Madoc Tim Horton’s last Thursday evening, Isaac and Eliza patiently answering my questions while little Samuel squirmed a bit, being understandably rather more interested in moving on to supper.

The boys and I were sitting chatting as Eliza ordered them a drink and a cookie to tide them over till that delayed (because of me) supper. “They’re saying they’re going to close our school,” Isaac told me. He went on to explain the board’s plan as succinctly as I could: move the MTPS students into Madoc Public School in the village of Madoc, and move all Grades 7 and 8 students from both elementary-school areas into the high school in Madoc.

“Are the kids at school talking about this?” I asked him.

“A lot,” he replied forcefully. “I don’t want them to take away that school.”

Since Isaac is now in the final months of Grade 6, he’ll be in the high school come September if the board’s proposal goes through. I asked him how he feels about that. He didn’t hesitate a second:

“Scared.”

He went on: “I don’t want to go to the high school. This school’s too good. I wish it went all the way up to Grade 8.”

Aha! Like I said: smart boy. A lot of people around here are wishing exactly the same thing, and feel it is the best course for the school board to take. Returning Madoc Township Public School to its roots as a kindergarten-to-Grade 8 school would mean full use of its space (a concern for the board because of enrolment issues), not to mention two more years of education for local children in a healthy rural setting with unmatched outdoor and playground facilities.

Part of Madoc Township Public School playground

Now that, people, is what I call a playground – and that’s only a small part of it. The MTPS playground has soccer pitches, a ball diamond, playground equipment, and acres in which to run, play and explore the outdoor world.

Section of MTPS playground

Here’s another view and another section of the MTPS playground – again, just a part of the full space available to the students.

Those playground facilities also came up when I was talking to Isaac and Eliza. Having lots of space to run around in is good, Isaac said, because “I’m a non-stop runner.” He also likes the fact that, unlike at his old school, the kids are not separated by grade level at recess; kids in all the grades can hang out and play together. He has lots of friends, he happily reported.

His mother singled out another important factor in Isaac’s success at Madoc Township Public School: Kim Foley, the school’s resource person to help kids with special learning needs. Here’s something interesting: like Anna Henderson, Kim’s from a family with deep roots in Madoc Township and at Madoc Township Public School. Her husband, like his father before him, owns the bus line that gets so many of its kids to school every day, and the Foley homestead is just down the road from MTPS. Similarly, Anna’s family, the McKinnons, were among the first farmers in Madoc Township back in the 19th century, and their handsome farm is just a couple of miles from the school.

Those long and strong connections with the surrounding community are yet another thing that show the importance of Madoc Township Public School to our area.

You might also be interested to know that Isaac’s mum – who is, of all the cool things, a professional stonemason by trade – is planning to start a large-scale maple-syrup business on the 200-acre property she owns here. That business will mean local jobs, and will bring in tourists. It’ll be an economic boost in a rural township that could use one. So here too is a way in which Madoc Township Public School’s presence is helping the wider community.

Let’s review the other reasons: Community roots. Good facilities. An outstanding outdoor play and exploration area. Teachers and other staff who help students attain their full potential, and who are able, thanks to the school’s modest scale, to ensure that no one “falls through the cracks.” Kids who all (thanks again to the school’s modest size) know each other and play together. A #1 ranking in student results. Those are the things that make a great rural school – and attract people to come to the area and increase its potential.

But hey, don’t take my word for it. Just ask Isaac.

Happy Valentine’s Day from Queensborough!

Valentines in Queensborough, 2017Thought I’d share with you nice people the delightful Valentine’s Day-themed touch that the volunteers with the Queensborough Beautification Committee have added to our made-in-Queensborough street signs.

Really, Queensborough is just the best. Isn’t it?

Bosley Road valentine

Saving a great school: it’s a work in progress

Accommodation committee at work

The committee members at the three tables representing Madoc Township Public School (foreground), Madoc Public School (centre) and Centre Hastings Secondary School (rear) confer and plan during last Thursday’s meeting in the gym at CHSS. The meeting was the latest step in the super-fast timeline set by the public school board for a decision on the future of the three schools.

Well, folks, here’s your latest update from the front lines of observing the process set in motion by our local public school board regarding the future of the schools in Madoc and area – which is, of course, where Queensborough is. Of particular interest and concern to most of the people I know is the future of Madoc Township Public School, where the young people of Queensborough and surrounding areas have been receiving an outstanding education in a splendid natural setting for more than 50 years. The school board is considering a proposal from its administration to close Madoc Township Public School, bus its students into the village of Madoc to attend Madoc Public School, and move all of the local Grades 7 and 8 students into the local high school, Centre Hastings Secondary.

(You can read lots of background information on all this by scrolling down on the home page of Meanwhile, at the Manse to the “Categories” section on the right-hand side, and then clicking on the “Madoc Township Public School” category.)

If you read my post last Tuesday, you’ll know that this past Thursday (Feb. 9) was the date the school board had set for the first meeting of its “accommodation review committee.” That committee, made up of the principals of the three schools as well as parent and school-council representatives, teachers, non-teaching school employees, students and community members, is the body that is supposed to consider the board’s plans, consult with the community, and offer the board advice in advance of a final decision that’s to be made this coming June. (That is, unless the provincewide protests against this so-called “accommodation” process, which will see large numbers of schools closed and students bused to more distant classrooms, make enough of a dent on the Wynne government’s consciousness that it comes to its senses and presses the pause button, allowing decisions on the future of schools, and by extension entire communities, to be made in a smarter, more reflective, more consultative and more forward-looking way.)

The meeting was open to the public, though the public was not allowed to speak. Instead, we observed from the chairs set up at the rear of the CHSS gym. It was an interesting evening.

The first thing we observed was that the representatives of the three schools had been directed to three separate tables. More on that in a bit.

The next thing we observed was the members of the committee opening great big information packages as the meeting began, and ruffling through many pages of documents. It was clear to any observer that this material was all new to the committee members, and I know I wasn’t alone in wondering why on earth the board administrators who prepared the packages couldn’t have sent them the material ahead of time, so they’d have had time to review it before the meeting.

Then we all sat through board administrators reading their prepared responses to the questions that had been raised at the lively public meeting Jan. 18 that was the kickoff to this process. That took the best part of an hour, and it would take me an age to report it all. However, you can read the answers for yourself at this page on the board’s website. I leave it to you to decide if the answers are satisfactory – and if you think they aren’t, I strongly urge you to contact – preferably by phone, because it makes more of an impact than email – one or more of the members of the accommodation committee, and/or your local school trustee, and/or other school trustees, and/or school-board administration, and/or your local municipal councillors, and/or your local member of provincial parliament, and/or the Ontario education minister, and/or Premier Kathleen Wynne. As I’ve said before, if we don’t make a loud noise about this, the government is not going to pay us any mind.

Okay, so: the next thing on the agenda was for the three separate tables to hold an hour-long discussion in which they were asked to come up with what they see as the pros and cons of the board administration’s recommendation, as well as any questions they might have. And this they did, while we members of the public quietly chatted amongst ourselves, catching up on local news and commenting on the proceedings.

An hour later, it was time for the reports and questions from the three groups. I won’t go through everything that was said (I don’t have that much time), but I will tell you that what was said and asked was uniformly impressive. And you know what else I was struck by? The spirit of co-operation. There was no sense that one table – representing one school – was out to get the other ones – no sense that people were there just to champion their school at the expense of the others. It made me happy and proud to watch these community volunteers in action.

There was a strong recurring theme in all three presentations: that the timeline for this important decision to be made is way too short. Bravo! This is absolutely true. As one speaker put it: if the board makes its decision, as it is scheduled to do, on June 19, and if it votes to approve the initial recommendation made by the administrators, that leaves precisely nine school days to prepare the children at the three schools for this momentous change.

Other questions and issues raised:

  • The lack of playground space in Madoc, both at the public school – where playground time has to be done in shifts because of space issues – and at the high school, where there are two fields that are just that: fields. No playground equipment. By extension, this observation is an astute questioning of the logic of closing Madoc Township Public School, which has not only playground equipment but more than seven acres of space for children to play and explore the outdoor world.
  • What about the Grades 7 and 8 students at the other schools that feed into Centre Hastings Secondary, the ones in the neighbouring villages of Tweed and Marmora? If CHSS is to be made into a Grades 7 to 12 school, shouldn’t all students be part of this experience? (This, though again very logical if you follow the board administration’s reasoning, will not go down well with parents and students in Tweed and Marmora, I can tell you that right now.)
  • Why, when the school board has recently built brand-new elementary schools in Stirling, Tweed and Marmora, is it in Madoc instead looking to cram students into aging buildings that, by its own admission, need millions of dollars’ worth of upgrading?
  • Is there property that could be purchased adjacent to Madoc Public School to give it some much-needed additional green space?
  • Why not make Madoc Township Public School a kindergarten-to-Grade 8 school, allowing all the students from its catchment area to complete their elementary schooling there? I am delighted to say that this proposal, which would return MTPS to the way it operated when it was opened with such high hopes for the future in 1961, and would put it at full occupancy, came from the Madoc Public School table. Like I say, there was a real spirit of co-operation and “let’s do what’s best for the kids and the community” in that room.

As you might expect, when it was time for the Madoc Township Public School table – filled as it was with people concerned about their school being closed – to speak, the focus was very much on that school’s attributes and its potential. Table spokesperson Judith Heard cited the exciting possibility of Madoc Township Public School becoming a place that emphasizes and specializes in outdoor learning, not to mention physical activity and fitness. She cited concerns about even longer bus rides for students from the northern end of the school’s catchment area if students were moved to more southerly Madoc. She pointed out that MTPS is large enough to accommodate all area students in kindergarten through Grade 8, and that its more-than-ample attached land provides space if in future the school needs to be enlarged. She asked whether there will be room at Madoc Public School if a plan to offer French immersion there attracts extra students (as it probably will, French immersion always being popular). She asked whether the board had followed the provincial government’s requirement to contact local municipalities for their input before starting the “accommodation” process.

She persisted.

And then, to applause from the audience, she politely asked whether the board administrators could please give the committee members any information they had to share with them before the meeting, so that they could review it properly. Yay!

And then she asked whether all the members of the committee could sit together at future meetings, rather than at separate school tables. “Our kids have grown up together, and we’d like to work together,” she said. Now that’s positive, co-operative thinking.

Okay, so on to the upshot: the committee members said they needed more time to talk. More time, that is, than the board administrators had allotted, which was last Thursday’s meeting and one final meeting, which is scheduled for March 1. Two meetings! That’s not a lot, is it? It was agreed that there will indeed be another meeting, and it will be on Thursday, Feb. 23, at 6:30 p.m., at Centre Hastings Secondary. The Madoc Township Public School table had asked if it could host a meeting at our school, in the interest of all parties seeing the facilities there. “And we’d like it to be a pot-luck,” said Margaret Heard, invoking the age-old tradition in our area of sharing food and friendship whenever possible. Sadly, the answer was no: the superintendent of education said that all meetings have to be at the high school, though I have to confess I didn’t get exactly why. Heaven forfend that people should actually see how great Madoc Township Public School is, says the bad angel sitting on one of my shoulders.

But there will be an additional meeting, and once again I urge you to attend. It’s very instructive, even if you aren’t allowed to speak. I also urge you to share your concerns, and better still your ideas, with members of the accommodation committee before that meeting.

And hey: if anyone’s up for organizing a community meeting to share ideas about the future of our schools – a meeting at which we can all speak our minds and the school-board administration can’t control what is said or done – well, count me in. And, I expect, a few hundred others.

Heads up: the next step in our school’s future is Thursday night

The flag at Madoc Township Public SchoolThere’s been precisely zero publicity about this from the local public school board, so I thought I’d step into the information vacuum: This coming Thursday, Feb. 9, is the next important date in the process for determining the future of the very fine elementary school that serves our rural area, Madoc Township Public School.

It’s when the so-called “accommodation review committee” (my journalistic training to use plain English instead of bureaucratic jargon makes my fingers twitch when I type those words) meets to discuss what happens next in the board’s proposal to close Madoc Township Public School, transfer its students to Madoc Public School in the village of Madoc, and transfer all Grades 7 and 8 students from both schools’ catchment areas to the high school in Madoc.

(If this is new to you, the background is in my previous posts here and here and here and here and here and here. Can you tell I care a lot about this issue?)

This first meeting of the committee – which is made up of community volunteers, parents, students and school representatives, as well as school-board officials – was listed on a what-happens-next PowerPoint slide at the public meeting on the closures and student moves held at the high school last month. (My report on that well-attended meeting is here.) We were told that the Feb. 9 committee meeting would be open to the public, but that the public would not be allowed to comment; the discussion is only for the members of the committee. Ever since then I’ve been waiting for the board to put out a reminder in the local newspapers and/or on its website of the meeting date, as well as its time and location. But there’s been nothing.

However, I have made inquiries of the committee and have learned that the meeting will be at Centre Hastings Secondary School starting at 6:30 p.m. Amazingly, it seems that even the committee members haven’t as of this writing been told which room in the high school will be the location, but the thought seems to be that it’ll be either the gym or the cafeteria. I hope you will join me in showing up at CHSS a bit before 6:30 p.m. Thursday, and I’m sure that together we’ll manage to track down the meeting room.

There have been quite a few developments on the whole school-closing front since the last time I wrote about it, and many of them are at least somewhat encouraging.

For one thing, the protest movement against the school-closure process laid down by the provincial government is growing. There have been many news stories all over Ontario (here‘s just one) about people fighting for their rural schools and their rural way of life, and pointing out how unrealistic a window of less than six months is for school boards to make careful, forward-looking decisions that will have a permanent effect on the people they serve – especially the children.

Joining those protests are many municipalities across the province, who are also calling on Queen’s Park to put a stop to the “accommodation” process until it can be reviewed and reworked to better meet the needs of rural students and rural regions. Locally, Prince Edward County council is among the most recent to join that movement.

Meanwhile our area’s MPP, Conservative Todd Smith, has organized a petition against rural school closures; you can sign it on his website here, and hard copies are being widely circulated (including at Smith’s office at 81 Millennium Parkway, Unit 3, Belleville.

todd-smith-petition

The petition that MPP Todd Smith has started against rural school closures.

Smith has also issued an open invitation to Ontario Education Minister Mitzie Hunter to visit the riding to talk about the issue (you can read it here) – though I know I was not alone in being disappointed that the letter put most of the emphasis on the Prince Edward County area rather than on Madoc Township and Madoc. (I suppose that’s not so surprising seeing that in the next election Smith will be running in a newly created riding that includes southern Hastings County and Prince Edward, and does not include central Hastings where Madoc Township is located.) Now, whether a Liberal minister is likely to respond to an invitation from an opposition MPP who harshly criticizes the government at every turn, notably on the very real problem of sky-high rural electricity rates, is a good question. Maybe we in the Madoc Township area should issue our own non-partisan invitation to Ms. Hunter…

At any rate: another good development is that Madoc Township council has thrown its full support behind its school. One councillor, Carrie Smith, has written an absolutely splendid letter to the chair and all trustees on the school board, as well as to Minister Hunter. Since it’s written on official Madoc Township letterhead, I assume Smith is speaking for the full council. You can read the whole letter at the Save Madoc Township Public School Facebook page (which you should most definitely join if you care about the school), but here’s an excerpt:

“What the [school board is] proposing to do will remove the heart of our community. This plan does not propose to close A school but THE school in our municipality! We are a small rural community … When a family looks to join our community … this small highly tested school [Coun. Smith is referring to Madoc Township Public School’s recent placement at the very top of schools in the board’s jurisdiction for student test results], this is a large draw to our rural area. As one writer has mentioned before me, ‘Where is the benefit to the students?’ For the students and parents that are trying to hold on to a rural way of life, I can … see none. It is not unreasonable to state that this lifestyle is slipping from our grasp. The closure of Madoc Township Public School is just another hit to a simple way of life.”

councillor-smiths-letter-to-the-school-board

The first page of Madoc Township Councillor Carrie Smith’s letter to the chair and members of the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board. To read the whole thing, go to the Save Madoc Township Public School Facebook page.

Councillor Smith also stresses the unmatched playground facilities at MTPS – acres of green space where kids can run and play and explore the natural world:

“Should it not be imperative to the school board to encourage physical activity, especially at a time when children are experiencing obesity and other health risks associated with sedentary lifestyles? Further to this, children … are also experiencing disconnect from the natural world. Is a standard play space a barren asphalt playground or concrete slab surrounded by chain-link fence? … I strongly feel that nature-rich schoolyards can help improve physical and mental health, cognitive skills, creativity and social cohesion.”

So long story short: things are cooking. People are talking. Ideas are being discussed. The accuracy of the numbers and statistics being presented by the board about the schools is being tested. Community input is being sought. Opposition to a flawed government process is mounting, all across Ontario. There is hope, people. This not a done deal.

I’m sure that at Thursday’s meeting, a lot of information will be exchanged. We’ll learn more about what the committee members are hearing from the public, and perhaps get a sense of the board administration’s response to it. It might well serve as a launch point for a more organized response from the broader community.

I think anyone who cares about our school, its students, and our rural way of life should try his or her very best to come to Thursday’s meeting. We may not be allowed to speak – but we can listen. Really, really hard.

And then we can get to work.

New neighbours: the ruffed-grouse family next door

Grouses in the trees

“Look! The trees are full of big birds!” That was the excitement here at the Manse this past late Saturday afternoon. We think they are ruffed grouses. Wow!

The world is full of scary things these days. Innocent people killed at a worship service, right here in our own country. Chaos and ominous, discriminatory edicts from the centre of power in the nation immediately to the south of us, the most powerful in the world. I don’t know about you, but I feel like we’ve entered a dark time. Which means it’s up to all of us to light up our own little corner of the world in any way we can, but especially with kindness and support for others – both the neighbours and family members we know, and the strangers from afar who are trying to make a go of it for themselves and their families in a new place. Enough light shone in enough corners can change the world, you know.

Here at Meanwhile, at the Manse, I try to shed a little light by telling you stories of life in Queensborough and environs that I hope you’ll find interesting, entertaining, maybe sometimes even touching. In tiny out-of-the-way Queensborough, neighbours always help neighbours. Also: it’s the place where it feels like, as a neighbour and friend of ours once said, “The world could end and you wouldn’t know it.” That, I think, makes it a good setting for stories that might brighten things up for us all once in a while.

Today I want to tell you about a simple yet rather astonishing thing that has twice brightened up the day for Raymond and me here at the Manse recently.

The first occurrence was a sunny morning a few days ago. Raymond was upstairs; I was down. I heard him calling me to come up, with some urgency. Up I zipped, and joined him at the north-facing window of our bedroom, which looks out on the adjacent property where the historic Kincaid house sits. “Look! Look!” he urged me. And there, to my astonishment, I saw a whole whack of big birds collecting beside the Kincaid house porch. They weren’t wild turkeys, a large bird that one sees fairly often, generally in groups, around here. They weren’t turkey vultures, another large and striking (in a rather ominous way) bird. They had ruffy things on the top of their heads. “I think they’re ruffed grouses!” I exclaimed. Like I knew what I was talking about, which I didn’t. But we are pretty sure they were ruffed grouses – and people, how often have you had a big collection of ruffed grouses show up outside your bedroom window? I was only sorry I didn’t have my phone to hand to get a photo.

They didn’t stay long; they flew up and over the top of the old barn/shed attached to the Kincaid house, and were gone. But we were delighted once again, as we have been so many times since we bought the Manse, at a wildlife sighting. It’s so different from living in the big city.

This past Saturday, some out-of-town friends arrived for a weekend visit. As we were catching up on what’s going on in their lives and ours, we mentioned with delight the recent visit of our ruffed-grouse clan. A couple of hours later, as afternoon turned to evening and the four of us were sitting at the dining-room table enjoying some delightful before-dinner snacks that Raymond had whipped up, I happened to glance out a north-facing window to the trees that hang over the Kincaid house.

“Look! The trees are full of big birds!” I shouted. Everyone turned to look, and I dashed outside with my phone to try to get some pictures before darkness had fully set in. And there they were again: six or seven very large birds, ruffed crests atop their heads, bobbing about in the trees. They seemed as happy as all get out, carrying on a conversation in what I thought were oddly tiny voices for such large birds. If you watch this little video and turn up the volume, you can listen in:

So it seems a grouse clan may have taken up residence in our neighbourhood. And I think that is a happy and interesting thing. Just the bright spot that a person needs in their corner for some cheer in these trying times.

Good neighbours

Ruth and Chuck on moving day

Ruth and Chuck on their final morning this past weekend at their lovely, historic home on King Street in Queensborough, across the way from the Manse.

This past weekend, Raymond and I said goodbye (for now) to Chuck and Ruth Steele, who have been our neighbours and friends since we bought the Manse five years ago. Chuck and Ruth have sold their home around the corner from us – it’s one of the prettiest and most historic houses in Queensborough – and are moving to not-too-far-away Belleville.

We’ll miss them. A lot.

In January 2012, when we were new to the Manse and I was back in Queensborough for the first time since my childhood here, I only knew a few people in the village and environs – people who’d been here when I was a kid and my dad was the minister back in the 1960s and ’70s. Among the very first of the “new” people Raymond and I met (though in reality we were the new people) were Chuck and Ruth, who introduced themselves, warmly welcomed us, and quickly became the best across-the-way neighbours anyone could hope for.

I have so many good memories of them over the past five years!

Jen and Dustin loading the truck

In typical Queensborough fashion, several neighbours showed up this past Saturday morning to help Chuck and Ruth with their move. Here, Dustin Whalen loads boxes into the truck while Jen Couperus stacks them at the rear.

We treasure all of our good neighbours in Queensborough, and I could tell you stories about the kind, funny and interesting things that pretty much every one of them has done since we’ve been at the Manse. But since Ruth and Chuck are the ones who have recently moved, today’s post is going to be about the kind, funny and interesting ways in which they have been our wonderful neighbours. But just before I get to that list, I want to emphasize that even though Chuck and Ruth have moved, they are not going to be strangers to Raymond and me. They’re now our friends, and a bit more distance between us doesn’t change that.

Okay, some stories to show you what good neighbours they have been. Let’s start with one that is highly embarrassing to me.

When the Hastings County Plowing Match was held at the Queensborough farm of Angus and Don McKinnon this past summer, and St. Andrew’s United Church of Queensborough (along with its two partner churches) had a food booth there, church members and friends were asked to make pies to sell. (Pie is a big deal in Queensborough, and people are good at making it, as you can see in this post.)

People, I do not make pie. It’s not because I don’t want to; it’s because I can’t. Every time in my life that I’ve tried to make pie crust – admittedly, you could count those tries on the finger of one hand and have several fingers left over – it’s been a disaster. But I tried. I tried a lemon meringue pie. I didn’t get fancy; I used the lemon-meringue-pie mix that comes in a box. There are instructions on that box. What could go wrong?

It was a disaster.

I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I sure as heck knew I wasn’t going to take that pie to the booth at the plowing match.

“Ask Ruth if she’ll make a pie!” cheerfully suggested Ed, another of our wonderful neighbours. Brilliant!

I was shy about doing it, but I was desperate. I went over to Ruth and humbly explained my predicament.

And she made two gorgeous lemon meringue pies. Look! Here’s the evidence – my sorry-looking excuse for a pie on the left, and Ruth’s miraculous creation on the right.

Ruth's pie vs. my pie

And speaking of lemon meringue pie – I have another little Chuck and Ruth story in which it plays a role.

“Queensborough: the place where you go out for a community meeting, come home and open the barbecue to make supper, and find two pieces of homemade lemon meringue pie there. To whomever we owe thanks for this wonderful surprise dessert: thank you!”

That was my post on Facebook one day last August. I was dead beat from a long day followed by that evening meeting. But to open the barbecue on the front porch and find two pieces of homemade lemon-meringue pie there – wow!

lemon-pie-in-the-barbecue

The surprise lemon-meringue pie in the barbecue.

Of course the pie had suffered a tiny bit from being there under the barbecue lid for perhaps a couple of hours. But man, was it delicious! Raymond and I gobbled it up after whatever it was that we barbecued that night. (I can’t remember the main course, but I sure remember that pie.) And of course you can guess to whom we owed the kind gesture of the surprise pie. Chuck had brought over two pieces of Ruth’s latest fabulous baking project, discovered we weren’t at home, and left it for us in a place he was pretty sure we’d find it.

There were so many other kind gestures over these past five years: Chuck bringing over his snowblower to clear out our socked-in driveway after a snowstorm; invitations for get-togethers at which there was so much of Ruth’s amazing cooking that we left barely able to move; Chuck bringing over his pickup one spring morning to boost the killed-by-winter battery of Raymond’s truck:

Chuck helping Raymond boost the truck

Chuck setting up the booster cables between his truck and Raymond’s to get the latter going again after a long, cold winter being parked in the Manse garage.

And:

  • The helpful advice from Chuck on things like weed-whackers and truck trailers and such.
  • The kind gestures to others in the community, like the homemade cookies Ruth always had on hand for neighbourhood kids.
  • Their contributions to the community, through their volunteer work with the Queensborough Beautification Committee and just making their own home and grounds look so nice that they were a model to others in the village:
Ruth's beautiful garden

Ruth’s beautiful garden, a pleasure for us to look at all summer long from the front of the Manse.

Avocado-green phone

I adore my avocado-green phone, which I have Chuck to thank for.

Also: Chuck spotting something for sale online that he knew I needed, and letting me know about it right away. It was, of course – of course! – an avocado-green dial phone; I mean, who doesn’t need an avocado-green dial phone to remind them of their midcentury youth? Thanks to Chuck, we are now the proud owners of that phone, which isn’t hooked up yet but I am thinking might make a fine addition to a retro-style avocado-green bathroom here at the Manse…

(Which reminds me of another way, this one kind of inadvertent, in which Chuck and Ruth were an inspiration: their Queensborough home still has its c.-1970 avocado-green bathroom! Sadly, I don’t have a photo of it.)

Then there was the time Raymond’s two-year-old grandson, Henry, and his parents visited us here in Queensborough and, just as they were leaving for the long drive back to Quebec’s Eastern Townships, Ruth appeared with a new toy truck to keep Henry occupied and amused on his ride home. He was delighted!

Henry, Justine and Pepere on the swings

Henry, his Pépère (grandfather) Raymond and mum Justine on the swings at the Queensborough Community Centre. Henry’s visit was capped by a gift from Ruth.

Maybe the best thing of all, though, was just knowing that Ruth and Chuck were there. They kept an eye on our place when we weren’t around, which was always a comfort. More importantly, their presence in their lovely home, the lights shining in their kitchen and in their spacious enclosed front porch in the evenings, gave us a feeling of – well, neighbourliness. Queensborough is a small place amid a lot of wide open lonely space where you can sometimes hear the wolves and coyotes howling on a cold and dark winter night. When you look out the window on one of those nights, you like to see the lights of your neighbours from within their snug homes. It makes you feel snug and safe too.

When we popped over to Ruth and Chuck’s for a quick night-before-the-move visit last Friday, Raymond and I were fortunate enough to meet the new owners of their home, Steve and Dana and their two little girls. We really look forward to having them as our new neighbours when they arrive in a very few days.

But since Saturday, Ruth and Chuck’s home (as I continue to think of it) has been dark at night, for the first time in our five years at the Manse. It is dark tonight. No Ruth puttering in the kitchen; no Chuck tinkering in the garage or sharing funny things on Facebook at his computer. It makes me sad and a little lonely when I look out the window of the Manse.

I have one last Ruth and Chuck story to tell you. A few months ago, Raymond and I left for a brief trip somewhere or other and, a couple of hours into it, realized that we weren’t sure if either of us had turned off the coffee pot before we left. What a couple of dopes! I called Ruth and, with more than a little embarrassment, asked if they would mind walking over and checking it for us. (We had given them a key to the Manse long before, just in case.) Of course they didn’t mind a bit, checked things out, and called to assure us that the coffee maker had been turned off and all was well.

Burned coffee pot

What happens when you lose your neighbours.

Okay, that’s Part 1 of the story.

Here’s Part 2: This past weekend, after saying goodbye to Ruth and Chuck, we had to be in Toronto overnight. They were finishing the loading of the moving truck when we left. When we came home the next day, they were gone. Our neighbours’ house was dark and silent.

And at the Manse? We’d left the coffee pot on.

I think it was a sign that we need our neighbours.

Chuck and Ruth, thank you for everything. I’ll leave you and the readers with one last photo of your Queensborough home while you were here, a summer day when a splendid rainbow shone over it and our village. May the rainbow always shine over you!

rainbow-over-chuck-and-ruths-house

A community comes together for a cause: saving our schools

bob-sager-at-public-meeting

Everyone was listening hard as Madoc Township Reeve Bob Sager made the case from the floor for the importance of Madoc Township Public School and its unmatched playground at last week’s public meeting about the future of the school.

I came away from last week’s public meeting about the future of Madoc Township Public School feeling a mix of anxiety and pride. The anxiety was over whether our community will be successful in keeping this splendid rural school open. The pride was in the thoughtful and clear-headed way in which members of the community asked their questions and made their case for why it should be kept open.

In case you’re new to this issue, the background is all contained in my recent posts here and here and here and here and here. The one-sentence version: the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board is proposing to close rural Madoc Township Public School, send its students to Madoc Public School in the village of Madoc, and send the Grades 7 and 8 students from both schools’ catchment areas, who currently are at Madoc Public, to Centre Hastings Secondary School, also in the village of Madoc. The change, which would take effect starting this coming school year (i.e. in September 2017), is proposed by the board because enrolment at CHSS and, to a lesser extent, Madoc Township Public School, is below the schools’ capacity and because (according to the board) maintenance and renovation requirements for the schools are higher “than the average for the system.”

The board’s process for deciding on whether to follow through with this proposal is to first set up what’s called an “accommodation review committee,” consisting of school and community representatives as well as the board’s regional superintendent of education. This committee’s job is to be the liaison between the community and the school board, and to provide the board’s elected trustees and administrators (unelected employees) with information, feedback and possible alternate courses of action, before the trustees make their final decision this coming June. (If you think that’s a tight timeline for such an important decision that affects so many people, notably children – you’re not alone.)

The committee for our three local schools having been duly formed, the first meeting for the public as a whole was held last week in the gym at CHSS. Turnout was good, though it would probably have been better had the meeting not been rescheduled by a day because of freezing rain, and had the weather not been bad on both the originally scheduled date and the new one.

The evening began with an hour-long presentation by board officials on the accommodation process – the background, the information about the schools that the board is working with, the timeline for the process, and so on. Doubtless this is a necessary step, though at one point I leaned over to my neighbour in the audience to wonder in a whisper whether they were trying to bore us into a catatonic state. All the information presented in the PowertPoint was already in everyone’s hands in the form of printouts that the board folks thoughtfully made available, so we basically went through it all twice. However, as a teacher I well know that you can’t present information too often if you want it to sink in, so I definitely am cutting the board people some slack on that point.

Then the floor was opened to questions, and that, of course, was the interesting part. There were questions about:

  • The accuracy of information provided in the board’s profiles of the three schools. Rooms in the high school that are no longer classrooms were listed as such, one person pointed out; errors like that would skew the data on how much space in the school is underused. One parent perceptively pointed out that the board gave two different figures in two different places for capacity and usage at Madoc Township Public School. In one document, capacity was listed as 184 students, with an actual enrolment of 121, which translated to usage of 66 per cent. In another document, the enrolment of 121 stood but capacity was listed as 161, which gives a significantly higher usage rate of 75 per cent. Oddly, she was told that the 66-per-cent figure was the correct one; I say “oddly,” because according to the documents, the 161-capacity, 75-per-cent-usage figure was more recent than the other one. I think that’s one mystery for the accommodation committee to get to the bottom of.
  • Whether the needs of the children had been considered, or was the board’s recommendation only about money. Noting the concern that many people have about “factory farms” and their impact on rural communities, the agriculture system and our food supply, one questioner suggested that recommendations like the one the board is considering are the educational equivalent: “factory schools.” Another, the mother of a child who’s in Grade 7 in the autism program at Madoc Public School, was almost in tears as she told the room that her son is not ready to be moved into a high-school environment as soon as this coming September. Another mum talked about her young children’s fearful questions to her about whether they’ll be riding the school bus with the big kids from high school.
  • The advisability of closing a school – Madoc Township Public – with extraordinary playground facilities: 5½ acres, according to one questioner, closer to seven acres according to the board’s own documentation (compared to a little less than 2½ acres at Madoc Public School). Madoc Township Reeve Bob Sager put it simply but well in his question from the floor: “There is room to play at Madoc Township Public School. Has that been taken into consideration?” Or, to quote a boy who bravely stepped up to the mike and said he is going into Grade 7 next year: “What will we do to go outside?” (Loud applause from the crowd to that, as to many of the questions asked at the meeting.)
  • What about those renovations? One person asked two good questions on this topic: First, why does the board documentation suggest that all listed renovations ($7 million at the high school, $2.3 million at Madoc Public and $2.9 million at Madoc Township) need to be done more or less right now? Surely, she suggested, the work can and would be done in stages over a period of several years? And second: Has the board consulted with contractors to find out how accurate its cost estimates for the renovations are?

Now, at this point you might be wondering what kind of answers were given to these excellent questions. In fact, there were no answers. The audience was told that all the questions and concerns were being recorded, and that the issues raised would be for the accommodation committee to consider and work through. (If you think that sounds like an awful lot of work for a group of community volunteers – once again, you’re not alone.)

Okay, on to more of the questions from the floor:

  • How do we contact members of the accommodation committee? This one actually got an answer: that there’ll be an email address for the committee on the board’s website. Speaking personally, I don’t think that’s good enough, and I don’t think queries should have to go through the school board’s email system. Also: I can’t as yet find that email address, though there is a listing of the committee members (without contact information) here.
  • Who will make the final decision on what happens to the schools? Again, an answer: The elected trustees who sit on the board. Followup question #1: How many trustees are there? Answer: Ten. Followup question #2: How many of them are here tonight? Answer: Two. (Bonnie Danes and Justin Bray, who represent central Hastings County and southeast Hastings County respectively.) Followup question #3: So 80 per cent of the people who will be making the final decision aren’t here tonight? No answer needed. It was a rhetorical question, and a perfectly correct observation.
  • What will happen down the road – or, as one questioner put it: “Where’s the growth going to go?” Closing Madoc Township Public School and moving the students to Madoc Public will completely fill that latter school up, and its attached land is small. Suppose, said the man at the mike, that even one good-sized company opens up in the area. Where would the children of its employees go to school? As I think about it, it strikes me that the smart subtext of that question is this: the board is betting on the failure of our rural area to attract growth and development, not its success. It’s betting on fewer people living here, not new people coming in. That, it seems to me, is unhelpful and unsupportive, and a big mistake.
Tom Deline speaks at public meeting

“Rural Ontario IS different:” the wise words of Centre Hastings Mayor Tom Deline.

Which leads me to some wise words that Tom Deline, the mayor of Centre Hastings (the municipality that takes in Madoc village), offered up from the floor. He told the board representatives that he recognizes the problems they’re facing (provincial-government funding rules for schools, declining enrolment, etc.), and sympathetically added that he wouldn’t relish their job. But, he said, closing a community’s school is like pulling out any other critical facility, such as an arena.

It’s about a sense of community, he said, urging the board: “Please, please consider the social and economic benefits of that particular school when you’re making those decisions.”

And then, in a statement that I feel is utterly true and absolutely critical, he said: “Rural Ontario is different.” We’re not a city; urban issues are not the same as our issues. Here where we live, Mayor Deline said, “the sense of community is tremendous.” And schools are a big part of that.

Another person speaking from the floor echoed that sentiment, pointing out that most people who live in rural areas have chosen to do so because they appreciate rural life – including their children being able to go to rural schools. While I don’t have kids, I know I chose to live in this rural area because of the quality of life here. We may not have all the amenities of a city – a nearby hospital, a big choice of shops – but for us that’s more than outweighed by space, and beauty, and friendly neighbours who help you out when you need it, and – to quote Reeve Sager again – room for our kids to play.

Rural Ontario is different, as Mayor Deline said. It is time for the provincial government to do a better job of recognizing that, and to work with its subordinate agencies – like school boards – to support and enrich rural life. Not shut it down.

Which is why I think we all need to get involved here, and get our elected representatives involved. Our local MPP, Todd Smith, is in the Conservative opposition as opposed to the governing Liberals, but he can ask the government (notably the minister of education) some pointed questions about support for rural schools. Why not contact him? His Belleville constituency office’s number is 613-962-1144 (toll-free 1-877-536-6248); his Queen’s Park office is 416-325-2702; and his email is todd.smithco@pc.ola.org.

Meanwhile, when the provincial riding boundaries change next year to match up with recent federal-riding changes, our MPP may well be the Conservative nominee for the new riding of Hastings-Lennox and Addington, none other than our longtime former MP, Darryl Kramp – a Madoc resident who is widely known and respected throughout this area. Why not contact him (here is his Twitter) and ask if he can help?

And while we’re at it (and even though education is a provincial, not a federal, matter), why not contact the guy who defeated Mr. Kramp in the last federal election, Liberal MP Mike Bossio? He is from Madoc, went to school there – and, what is probably more important, is hugely supportive of rural issues. He is, in fact, chair of the federal government’s National Rural Caucus, and in that role has been making considerable noise over the past year on the need to support rural communities. Why not ask if he can help? You can find Mr. Bossio’s contact information here.

Then there are the trustees on the school board, not just the two who came out to last week’s meeting – Bonnie Danes (who, to her great credit, voted against the “accommodation” process being started for our area) and Justin Bray – but the other eight, or 80 per cent, who didn’t come. You can find their names, phone numbers, email addresses and mailing addresses here. They are your elected representatives, and their mandate is to bring forward your issues. Tell them what those issues and concerns are!

There are also our local municipal councillors. It was great to see Reeve Sager and Mayor Deline speaking out at the meeting, but it would even better to see their respective councils pulling out all the stops in standing up for their local schools and our rural way of life. You can find the members of Madoc Township council here and Centre Hastings council here. Please let them know how you feel.

save-madoc-township-public-school-facebook-page

The new Facebook group Save Madoc Township Public School. Please join!

Finally, you might request membership (I doubt that you’ll be turned down) in the new Facebook group Save Madoc Township Public School, where lots of useful information is being shared. It was there, for instance, that I learned that under provincial rules about planned school closings (you can read the full document here), the board has an obligation to consult with the affected municipalities and other community partners about issues around underused school space – and presumably how that underused space might be used by said community partners. The person who posted the information asked: Has that consultation happened? A very good question. At the public meeting last week, we were given no indication that it had.

Also on that Facebook page, you’ll find a link to this interesting article from yesterday’s Toronto Star on provincewide concerns not only about rural schools being threatened with closures, but about the process surrounding those closures. It is good to know that we aren’t alone; the more pressure that all of us rural people can put on the government, the more chance there is that changes will be made and that rural schools – and by extension rural communities – will be given support rather than a governmental kick in the shins.

So what’s next? Well, first we should all contact the people I’ve mentioned, and anyone else you can think of who might be able to help. Oh, gracious – how could I have forgotten? Contact Ontario’s education minister! Her name is Mitzie Hunter, and her contact information is here. And while you’re at it, how about Ontario’s minister of rural affairs, Jeff Leal, who’s from nearby Peterborough? Here is his contact information. And the minister of municipal affairs, Bill Mauro, whose ministry’s website promises that it is “working with local governments and partners across Ontario to build safe and strong urban and rural communities with dynamic local economies, abundant greenspace and a high quality of life.” Bingo! Mr. Mauro’s contact information is here.

And last but not least: Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne. Her contact information is here.

After that: attend meetings. The schedule the board has set up calls for there to be a meeting of the Madoc-area accommodation committee on Thursday, Feb. 9. I have inquired and have been told that a time and place for it have not yet been set, so stay tuned; that information will probably be provided through the three schools’ social-media (Facebook and Twitter) feeds, as well as under the “Upcoming Events” and/or “News Stand” sections of the school board’s website. There’s a followup meeting for the committee on Wednesday, March 1, but in between there are likely to be more informal school-by-school meetings – and at those, you will probably be allowed to speak, which we were informed at last week’s public meeting we could not do at the official committee meetings. (Though we are welcome to attend and be silent.)

On Wednesday, March 22, the board will hold the second of its two scheduled public meetings on the issue of changes to our three local schools. After that, it’s all about various board and committee meetings (you can see the full schedule here), and then the final decision at a board meeting Monday, June 19. Which is really not very far away.

The timeline is tight; the stakes are high; we probably have tough odds against us. But I feel sure that if we all do our part – by telling our elected representatives at every level how we (the people who elect them) feel, and by working together to come up with creative and innovative solutions to help the school board solve the tough problems it is up against – we have a really good shot. And in doing so, we can help others in rural Ontario who are facing the same problems and the same threat to their way of life.

I think this is a battle worth fighting. And that, with a lot of hard work, we can win.