“It really comes down to how much noise you make.”

robin-hutcheon-protests-school-closure

Robin Hutcheon and fellow activists demonstrate against the closure of rural schools outside a meeting of the Limestone District School Board in Kingston. (Photo from the Frontenac News, which has an article about the protest here.)

Robin Hutcheon is a mother of four school-age kids, a lifelong resident of the pretty village of Tamworth, Ont. – and, now, an activist in the fight to preserve Ontario’s rural schools, like Madoc Township Public School. Yesterday I called her up with a view to learning how that fight is going in her neck of the woods (not very many miles east of us here in Queensborough and Madoc Township), and perhaps sharing experiences and ideas.

My call came three days after the most recent gathering of our own public school board‘s “accommodation review committee” – the group of local residents tasked with considering the board’s plan to close Madoc Township Public School, send its kindergarten-to-Grade 6 students to Madoc Public School in the village of Madoc, and moving students in Grades 7 and 8 from both elementary schools’ catchment areas to the local high school, Centre Hastings Secondary in Madoc. For onlookers like me, whom the school board allows to attend and watch the committee meetings but not to comment or otherwise participate, that meeting was an exercise in frustration. I suspect the members of the committee felt the same way.

Robin doesn’t mince words when she talks about the so-called “accommodation-review process,” which is a fancy bureaucratic way of saying “school-closing process.”

“You can’t rely on the process” if you hope to save a rural school, she told me:

“The process is set up for you to fail. It’s set up to close schools quickly and efficiently.”

And with that, she pretty much put a finger on how I was feeling as I drove home late last Thursday night after the meeting at CHSS.

That meeting was a bit of an exercise in good intentions gone bad. At the previous accommodation-committee meeting – which was planned by board administration as the first of only two sessions, later extended to three at the committee members’ request – the team of parents, community members and school representatives from Madoc Township Public School had asked that at future meetings the reps from all three schools be allowed to sit and work together, rather than being separated into three tables for the three schools. This seemed like a great, collaborative idea at the time, and I celebrated it when I wrote about that meeting here.

Accommodation committee at one table

Members representing all three of our local schools who sit on the school board’s “accommodation review committee” carry on discussions at last week’s meeting in the gym at Centre Hastings Secondary School. The rest of us sat in the bleachers and watched.

But it was better in theory than practice, as it turned out. Last Thursday night, after an hour-long session at which two principals, representing schools in Belleville where Grades 7 and 8 students are now (as of this past year) housed in the nearby high school, sang the unbounded praises of how utterly perfectly that setup has worked (oh dear – I’m afraid I sound cynical…), the members of the committee, now all sitting around one very big table, were asked to divide into groups and talk some more about the plan that’s on the table for our local schools. The problem with this was that you had people from three different schools with three not-quite-the-same sets of concerns, and the upshot was questions and comments for the school-board representatives that were a little (not to put too fine a point on it, and I hope I don’t hurt anyone’s feelings here, because I don’t mean or want to) – lame. The balls that were lobbed were absolute softballs, easy for the board representatives – whose job is to get this plan through, boom, period – to hit out of the park.

Basically it turned into a session about how best to make the board’s plan work, as opposed to what us defenders of Madoc Township Public School were hoping for – that is, a serious challenge to the logic (if you can call it that) behind closing our top-rated local school and, in doing so, cutting out a big chunk of the heart and soul of the Madoc Township and area community.

And that’s the problem Robin Hutcheon so succinctly identified. The process the accommodation committee is following is the school board’s process. The odds are completely stacked against the defenders of MTPS, of which I proudly count myself one. The board’s administrators do not want us to win, because that would make their lives more difficult; they would have to come up with another way to meet the requirements of the provincial government school-funding formula, which is widely seen as unfair to rural Ontario and is the reason there are school-closing fights going on all over the province.

So what can we do – those of us who want to see our school and our community preserved?

Well, my own view is that we should start by talking to Robin Hutcheon and other people like her who are fighting the same battle in different parts of rural Ontario. Which is why I called her up last night.

Our half-hour-long conversation left me with a number of questions that I realized I’d like to see answered by our own school board:

  1. Why is there a rush for the board to decide this coming June on the plan to close MTPS and make the other school changes? I learned that in Robin’s area – Stone Mills Township, in Lennox and Addington County – the Kingston-based Limestone District School Board is proposing to close all five schools, which is dreadful – but not until 2018 or later. So, bad as it is that Stone Mills might lose all its schools – if that board can hold off until 2018 or later, why is our board racing to get it done by mid-2017?
  2. Shouldn’t we have up-to-date information about the renovation needs of the local schools before the board makes its decision? In Stone Mills, the group Robin chairs called Rural Schools Matter (check out its Facebook page here) is fighting to find out how much the Limestone board has spent in recent renovations at Yarker Public School, the first on the list for closure. The board has refused to provide that information. A freedom-of-information request by the closure opponents resulted in the board saying it would only provide the statistics if the group coughed up well over $100,000 in costs. That is nuts! (Rural Schools Matter is fighting this, as you can imagine.) But meanwhile, officials from our own board at last week’s meeting told us that information on our local schools’ renovation needs is five years old and is due to be updated in the 2017-18 school year. But wait – isn’t that the year the board proposes to close Madoc Township Public School? Does that picture make sense? Could the closure not at least be put on hold until we have current information?
  3. Can this deadline be met? What are the chances that, if our board decides on June 19 – as it is scheduled to do – to go ahead with its plan, it will be able to get all the renovations needed at Madoc Public School and CHSS done in time for the start of the school year in September? Given the need for architectural plans, building permits, inspections, etc. – my guess would be: slim. I sure would like to hear the board administration’s plan for how it will accomplish this feat.

I have lots of other questions – as, I know, do other defenders of our school – but for now I’ll leave it at that. Really the overarching question is why this decision is being made in such great haste.

But meantime: strength in numbers, people; strength in numbers. That’s what Robin Hutcheon is talking about. Her group has taken the battle well outside the school-board-controlled process, holding public-information and rallying sessions in the various Stone Mills communities affected (Enterprise, Centreville, Yarker, Tamworth and Newburgh), demonstrating outside school-board meetings (the next demonstration is Wednesday, March 8, between 5 and 6 p.m., at the board’s headquarters at 220 Portsmouth Ave. in Kingston), holding fundraisers for the cause (a dance and silent auction this past weekend), and just generally getting the wider community to sit up and take notice of this issue that affects all of us in rural communities, whether we have kids at school or not.

We need to get the attention of the people who can make a difference:

  • The elected trustees on the school board, who are supposed to answer to us, the voters and taxpayers – not to school board administration.
  • The movers and shakers in our local communities: councillors, businesspeople, people with influence.
  • Ordinary people. Our neighbours. The voters and taxpayers and sustainers of our communities.
  • The provincial government. (Yes, the current Liberal government. A theoretical future government formed by another party can’t help us right now.) As a letter that Robin’s group is urging Stone Mills people to send to Premier Kathleen Wynne says, in part:
    “The very real enemy of rural Ontario, which according to Statistics Canada occupies 99 per cent of Ontario, lies in the implementation of flawed funding models by the Ministry of Education. These strategies, in their most simplistic interpretation, essentially provide funding to boards for new schools but not equal funding for improving existing schools. This is resulting in what can only be described as a direct affront on rural life in the province of Ontario as community after community faces the closing of their local schools by district school boards struggling with the constraints imposed by these funding formulae.
    “You must impose a moratorium on rural school closures in the Province of Ontario and address the problems inherent in the funding models in order to undo what amounts to a declaration of war on the Ontarian rural way of life.”

We need to mobilize, work together, and make noise.

“You have to be forceful,” says Robin Hutcheon. “You have to question everything.”

And the difference between a hope of victory and certain defeat, in her view?

“It really comes down to how much noise you make.”

The third and final meeting of the accommodation review committee for Madoc Township Public, Madoc Public, and Centre Hastings Secondary schools takes place this Wednesday, March 1, in the gym at CHSS, at 6:30 p.m. Members of the public are welcome to attend but may not speak. I have found that watching the proceedings is quite instructive.

But making noise? Not there. Our noise, if we are to make it, will have to come in other ways, in other places, and hopefully sooner rather than later.

Just think: What would Robin do?

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.