Now it’s on us – to celebrate our school, and to work for it

Thanking the trustees

Some of the people who have worked so hard to save Madoc Township Public School (at left, from left, Margaret Heard, Wendy Spence and Amy Beaton) offer handshakes and heartfelt thanks to school-board trustees (in foreground is Dwayne Inch; behind him is Jim Patterson, and half-hidden while shaking Amy’s hand is Mary Hall) this evening for their unanimous support of keeping MTPS open and returning to it students in Grades 7 and 8.

Call it a victory for rural education. Call it the best-case scenario for the children of Madoc, Elzevir and Tudor and Cashel townships. Call it a huge shot in the arm for our local economy and way of life. Call it whatever you like. We have something to celebrate.

This evening, the trustees who make up the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board voted unanimously to keep Madoc Township Public School open, and to expand it by bringing back students in Grades 7 and 8 as of this coming September. Here’s the video of the vote that put paid to the whole thing:

Big crowd at the school-board meeting

The boardroom was filled to capacity for this evening’s final votes by the school board on the future of quite a few schools in Hastings and Prince Edward counties. Many supporters of Madoc Township Public School were among the crowd.

After a campaign that lasted more than six months – beginning in November 2016, when administrators with the board announced their recommendation to close MTPS and bus its students to Madoc Public School in the village of Madoc as of this September – our community emerged stronger than when the whole thing started. Madoc Township’s only school will not only be able to carry on its long tradition of excellence in education, but students from our rural area will be able to attend it through Grade 8 rather than (as has been the case for about 45 years) be bused into “town.”

This is an astounding outcome, and one that even the most optimistic among us campaigners for MTPS barely dared think about, let alone hope for, during these past six months.

(If anyone reading this is unaware of the whole saga, which I freely admit I’ve covered in perhaps more detail than anyone wanted, just click on the “Madoc Township Public School” category on the right side of this blog’s home page. It’s all there – every step of the way.)

Thanks to Trustee Danes from MTPS supporters

Centre Hastings Trustee Bonnie Danes (left) was all smiles after this evening’s board meeting, as supporters of Madoc Township Public School, including recent MTPS grad Brooklyn Gylyktiuk (right foreground) and her mum, Wendy Spence, thanked her for her tireless work.

Every single one of the trustees on the board gets my huge thanks – and I hope yours too – for this vote of confidence in our school and our community. But I’d really like to single out Centre Hastings Trustee Bonnie Danes, who I think I’m safe in saying spearheaded the work behind the scenes at the board level in pushing for MTPS’s continued existence. I am sure that Southeast Hastings Trustee Justin Bray worked really hard on this one too. Trustees Danes and Bray: thank you so much!

As for the core of volunteers who have championed the cause of our local school on behalf of the community as a whole – who attended what seems like endless meetings, and put hundreds of hours into researching, planning, lobbying, networking, worrying (hey, I have to be honest) and strategizing – really, there are no words. Here they are, and it is one of the greatest honours of my life that they asked me to be in the photo with them:

The MTPS crew

Some of the core group of Madoc Township Public School supporters and activists who made it happen: from left, honorary member Brooklyn Gylyktiuk (an MTPS grad), plus some of the main crew: Wendy Spence, Margaret Heard, Randy Gray, Denise Gray, Holly Kormann, Amy Beaton – and, I feel shy to say and very honoured because they asked me to be in the photo, me.

So what happens next?

Well, we know that MTPS will be open for business this coming September, welcoming students from junior kindergarten to Grade 8. That is just amazing. And wonderful. And I think we should have a party! Maybe now; maybe in September. Whenever: a time for kids, parents and the community at large to gather on the five-plus acres at Madoc Township Public School for an afternoon or evening of kids running and jumping and exploring and playing soccer or softball or tag or hide and seek, parents taking photos and refereeing and chatting and enjoying the outdoors, and community members sharing their memories (old or new) of happy times at MTPS. With hot dogs and lemonade and conversation and smiles and tears of joy. Wouldn’t that be fun?

But in the longer term (and by that I mean only the very slightly longer term, i.e. starting pretty much now), I think it behooves all of us – parents, community members and MTPS students and supporters – to step up and show our ongoing support. I’m speaking only for myself here, but maybe I’m not alone in having realized that until six months ago, I took Madoc Township Public School for granted. It was there, it was a great school and a great asset to our community, and I assumed it would continue to be all of that.

And then we almost lost it. As Joni Mitchell says: “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?” Now, I think we did know what we had; but maybe we weren’t doing everything we could to ensure our community would continue to have it.

In the note of thanks that I sent to the 10 trustees last week after they passed their first (though not final) vote in favour of keeping MTPS open, I wrote this:

The confidence the trustees have shown in our school inspires me to do everything I can to ensure the community in turn does everything it can to support MTPS. Ways we can help that come to mind immediately are fundraising for playground, library and other school equipment and resources; assistance in establishing after-school care to help working parents; and support for outdoor-education programs that take full advantage of our school’s unparalleled green space. But I’m sure there are many other ways we can continue and expand our support.

I really mean that, and I hope others in the community will feel the same. If we want to continue to have this splendid school in our community, we can’t take it for granted; we have to work for it! And the more we do to help and improve our school, the greater its success will be – and the more assured will be its continued existence.

Madoc Township Public School, June 12, 2017

This is our school – and I am so proud of it!

One area that I feel strongly about is support for the school library. When I was a kid attending that brand-new school back in the 1960s and ’70s, it had a wonderful library – lots of books, comfy chairs, a welcoming ambience; it made you want to just curl up and read and read and read. Among my happiest memories of MTPS days are exploring all the books on the shelves, learning how they were categorized and shelved, and taking advantage of the newfangled (hey, it was the ’60s) audio-visual equipment. When I returned to MTPS for its fantastic 50th-anniversary celebration in 2011 (even before Raymond and I had bought the Manse and I resumed my childhood Queensborough connection), I was a little sad to see that the beautiful library space had been chopped up and turned largely into a computer lab, with a much-reduced library parked in a former classroom. If someone asked me tomorrow to head up a fundraising campaign to support and improve that library and the experience it offers the kids of MTPS, I would accept in a heartbeat. And this from someone (me) who is seriously lacking in free time – but aren’t we all? Hey, what can you do to support our school? Please think about it.

Our community has just received a priceless gift: our school, saved and supported. Let’s pay it forward by doing everything we can to make Madoc Township Public School even better, and in the process ensure a brilliant future for it, our kids and the rural place we are so proud to call home.

A thrilling new chapter in the life of Madoc Township Public School

MTPS front entrance, June 12, 2017Today, a new chapter was written in the 56-year (and counting) history of Madoc Township Public School. It is an amazing, positive, slightly surprising and utterly wonderful new chapter.

Today, the 10 trustees who make up the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board unanimously stood up in support of the continued and expanded life of Madoc Township Public School – the rural school that serves all of Madoc Township and environs, including Queensborough. Meeting as the board’s student enrolment/school capacity committee, the trustees rejected a plan by the board’s administrators to close MTPS and send its students to Madoc Public School and to ship all Grades 7 and 8 students from both schools’ catchment areas to Centre Hastings Secondary School in Madoc. And not only did the trustees vote to keep MTPS open; they voted to reverse a change made way back in the early 1970s and bring Grades 7 and 8 back to it! (From Madoc Public School, where they have been bused for the past 40-plus years.) This means that MTPS will once again – as it did when it was established with so much hope for the future back in 1961 – be educating all elementary-school-age students from our rural area. It means that MTPS will be almost at capacity as of this coming September – and very probably full to capacity and then some in a few short years, as the news spreads that this outstanding small school is a going concern and is in it for the long run.

Today the trustees demonstrated faith in our excellent local school, and in the promise and possibilities of rural education and rural communities. I know I speak for hundreds and hundreds of local kids, parents and community members when I say that we cannot thank them enough. Trustees Bonnie Danes (Centre Hastings), Justin Bray (Southeast Hastings), Dave Patterson (Belleville/Thurlow), Mary Hall (Belleville/Thurlow), Jim Williams (Sidney and Frankford in Quinte West), Lucille Kyle (North Hastings), Mike Brant (Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory), Jennifer Cobb (North Prince Edward County), Tom Biniaris (Trenton and Canadian Forces Base Trenton) and Dwayne Inch (South Prince Edward County) have demonstrated courage and leadership in the provincewide battle against an urban-focused provincial government that (despite its claims to the contrary) has made it extraordinarily difficult for rural schools to survive and for rural school boards to make that happen.

Trustees, Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board

The trustees who made the difference: from left, Tom Biniaris, Dwayne Inch, Justin Bray, Bonnie Danes, Mike Brant, director of education (not a trustee) Mandy Savery-Whiteway, Jennifer Cobb, Lucille Kyle, Dave Patterson, Mary Hall and Jim Williams.

There is one more step before we can all breathe a huge and final sigh of relief. One week from today (Monday, June 19, 7 p.m., at board headquarters at 156 Ann St. in Belleville), the same 10 trustees will meet again, this time not in the form of a committee of the board but as the full board. There they will be asked to vote again on the recommendations they approved today. You have to think that a unanimous (and, judging by the comments the trustees made and the tone of their voices as they cast their votes, determined and enthusiastic) decision in committee will be held up at the board meeting. But as we say and understand in rural Ontario: don’t count your chicks before they’re hatched. I hope as many of you as possible will join me in attending that final meeting next week, and once again showing your support for Madoc Township Public School.

Facebook Live, school-board meeting

To watch and hear all the comments by school-board trustees on today’s votes, please go to the Save Madoc Township Public School Facebook page, where you can watch the Facebook Live post that MTPS supporter Denise Gray posted.

Meanwhile, thank you to the large number of community members who turned out for today’s meeting! And thanks especially to Denise Gray – one of the tireless MTPS supporters who have attended every meeting, repeatedly lobbied trustees and board administrators, and generally kept the issue alive when some thought it was a done deal and a dead duck – for shooting live video of the discussions and vote so that you can see them. Go to the Save Madoc Township Public School Facebook page here to see that live footage.

If you do, you’ll see some great stuff, like when:

  • Utter silence greets the request for a mover and seconder for the board administration’s motion to close Madoc Township Public School.
  • Centre Hastings’s trustee, Bonnie Danes, presents the alternative motion, which is to keep MTPS open and bring its Grade 7 and 8 students back.
  • Trustee Dave Patterson speaks about what this alternative plan will mean: “What it is is about building a total school community, with Grades 7s and 8s as leaders, as models for the younger children. And giving them also maximized opportunity to engage in sports, and activities, and utilize the advantages of their communities that they live in and come from.” (Applause from us in the gallery.)
  • Trustee Jim Williams recounts a visit that he and Trustee Mike Brant made to MTPS, being escorted on a tour of the school by two of the senior students. “Had a wonderful tour! And while we were there, we were very, very impressed with the green space … There was a lot of green space! There was a track; there was a bit of a toboggan hill; there was a shelter area and lots of grass – and so we were really impressed, especially when we compared that with what we saw in town. The in-town school had very little in the way of anything green – and so there was a thumbs-up for the Township School.”
  • Trustee Tom Biniaris says that his own daughter in Grade 7 attends a Grade 7-to-12 school and it has been a good experience for her, “but from listening to the comments from Madoc Township – it changed my mind.”
  • The trustees vote, in order: Jim Williams: “Yes.” Mary Hall: “Ay.” Dave Patterson: “Yea.” Lucille Kyle: “I support this.” Jennifer Cobb (committee chair): “I support this as well.” Mike Brant: “Yea.” Bonnie Danes (surely the prime architect behind what happened this afternoon): “Definitely yes!” Justin Bray (also doubtless a big influence on today’s vote): “Yes.” Dwayne Inch: “Yes.” Mike Biniaris: “Yea.”

And with that, it’s unanimous. More applause. And tissues.

Even before the vote was done, as it became clear that the outcome would be in our school’s favour, the tears started to flow. I was weeping. The people in front of me were weeping. The people beside me and behind me were weeping. So many people had worked so hard for that moment, and the odds were so against us. But in the end the trustees recognized the merits of the arguments, and most especially the merits of MTPS’s continued existence. We could not quite believe that it was happening, and we were so, so grateful that it was. How could we not weep with joy? Our school, and our community, had just been given a massive vote of confidence.

The future feels very bright indeed.

Now, I’m sure you’re wondering (as well you should be, you readers being smart and inquisitive and all that) where this leaves Madoc Public School and Centre Hastings Secondary. Based on what happened at today’s committee meeting, those schools are at status quo.

What may happen down the line is this: a newly built state-of-the-art school housing all students, from kindergarten to Grade 12, from all three of the local schools. But the motion on that front that was approved by the trustees today (moved by Trustee Bonnie Danes, seconded by Trustee Justin Bray, and approved unanimously) was that nothing will happen to the existing schools until the provincial government approves funding for that new school. The approved motion also said that if the provincial government does not approve funding for that K-to-12 school for all area students, Madoc Public School and CHSS would be consolidated as a K-to-12 school – if the provincial government approves an addition and/or renovations at CHSS, and if the government provides funding for demolition of the old Madoc Public School building and creation of green space in its stead, and if there are approved plans for separated learning spaces for the elementary and secondary students at CHSS.

For now, and for September 2017: status quo. And in the meantime: how about we all take a deep breath and think about what’s really best for the kids of our community, and how best to make that happen?

As I drove home to Queensborough from the board meeting, I was still kind of in shock, though the best kind of shock. My glasses were all splotchy with tear stains. I decided I should swing by Madoc Township Public School for a quiet visit (it was after the school day had ended) and a few photos. The one at the top of this post is one of them. Here are a few more:

Madoc Township Public School, June 12, 2017

The Canadian flag waving proudly in the wind this afternoon at what was the original main entrance to Madoc Township Public School. How wonderful that, as Canada celebrates its 150th birthday, MTPS can celebrate (and look to the future) along with it!


50th anniversary tree at MTPS

A maple tree planted in front of MTPS on its 50th anniversary, in 2011, “to honour the classes of the 1960s.” Hey, that’s me! And many others. All of whom will be thrilled to see our school continue and maybe even enlarged.


My June art-class tree, Madoc Township Public School

This might or might not be the same tree that a tired and mildly exasperated early-grades teacher took my class outside to sketch (in lieu of doing inside lessons that we were all bored with) one bright June day somewhere around 1967 or ’68 at Madoc Township Public School. On a bright June day half a century (yikes!) later, when our brilliant rural school had just got a great boost, I thought I’d take a picture of it. (Not draw a sketch, which I couldn’t do back then and still can’t.)


Florence McCoy, 1st Principal

I never tire of looking at the plaque that was proudly placed on the front wall of Madoc Township Public School when it was opened in 1961, and especially the plaque above it paying tribute to Florence McCoy, its first principal. As I’ve written many times before, Florence McCoy was an astounding educator, the kindest of people, and the best principal ever. As I walked by that plaque yet again today, I thought: “Florence would be SO proud of what her flock has done to save this school.” Good on you and your lasting influence, Mrs. McCoy!

Just as I was leaving, a teacher who was working late came out of the building and gave me a friendly greeting. “Did you hear what happened at today’s school-board meeting?” I asked. Oh yes, the teacher had; all the teachers had. “It goes to show the power of community,” the teacher told me.

Yes it does. Yes it does.

Monday, June 12: a rural school, a critical vote, and the future

Madoc Township Public SchoolTomorrow (Monday, June 12, 2017, which may be today depending on when you read this) is a critical day in the life of Madoc Township Public School. It is the day when the student enrolment/school capacity committee of the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board meets (at 2 p.m., at board headquarters at 156 Ann St., Belleville) to formulate a recommendation on the future of the only school in rural Madoc Township and environs (including Queensborough). One week later, on Monday, June 19, that recommendation will go to a meeting of the full board (7 p.m., also at board headquarters) for a vote – and the future of MTPS will be decided. If the recommendation approved tomorrow is for the school to be closed, and the final vote supports that recommendation, there is no going back. Madoc Township Public School, an educational gem with an important local heritage in a perfect outdoor setting with a tradition of great teaching, high standards and individual care for all its children – will be gone.

I hope you agree with me that this would be a tragedy for our area. I also hope that, despite the hugely inconvenient time of the meeting in the middle of the workday, you will come to show support for MTPS.

It’s going to be a busy meeting. (The agenda is here.) The elected trustees who sit on the committee are also to prepare final recommendations for two other school areas that have, like the three schools in our part of central Hastings County, been involved in so-called “accommodation reviews” for the past six months or so. For those who’ve spent those past six months on Mars, those accommodation reviews are a process to close and consolidate schools that are suffering from declining student enrolment. In our area, the three schools affected are rural Madoc Township Public School and two schools in the village of Madoc, Madoc Public School and Centre Hastings Secondary School. (You can read about every step in this six-month process by clicking on the “Madoc Township Public School” category on the right side of the screen on this blog’s home page.)

As is common in these situations, the staff who work for the elected officials (trustees) who make up the board have already prepared their final recommendations, and these are the first thing that will go before the trustees. To no one’s surprise, the board staff’s recommendations are unchanged from what they came up with in the last go-round, which was largely unchanged from all the previous go-rounds. Here they are, verbatim, though if you want to be sure, you can find them on the agenda for the meeting here:

Recommendation #1
Moved:
Seconded:
That the Student Enrolment/School Capacity Committee recommend that the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board approve the consolidation of Madoc Township Public School and Madoc Public School at Madoc Public School effective September 2017, as contained in Report No. B-2, dated June 12, 2017.

Recommendation #2
Moved:
Seconded:
That the Student Enrolment/School Capacity Committee recommend that the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board approve the relocation of Grade 7 and 8 students from Madoc Public School to Centre Hastings Secondary School effective September, 2017 creating a Grade 7 – 12 school, as contained in Report No. B-2, dated June 12, 2017.

Recommendation #3
Moved:
Seconded:
That the Student Enrolment/School Capacity Committee recommend that the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board approve the consolidation of Centre Hastings Secondary School and Madoc Public School pending submission of a business case to the Ministry of Education and approval of funding to build a new K-12 school located in the Madoc Area and with consultation with the municipality regarding location options and plans to enhance greenspace for the K-12 school. Should a business case for a new K-12 school not be approved by the Ministry of Education, Madoc Public School be consolidated with Centre Hastings Secondary School as K-12 school pending Ministry of Education approval for an addition and/or renovations at Centre Hastings Secondary School and then demolish Madoc Public School to create green space for the K-12 school as contained in Report No. B-2, dated June 12, 2017.

I have to tell you that I don’t like these pre-prepared recommendations being set up to look like all that’s needed is a mover and seconder for them to sail through. You can see how hard the board’s administration is pushing for its own recommendations, as opposed to any differing ones that the trustees might come up with through their discussions, to be approved.

That said: it is the job of the trustees – the job we elected them to do, and that they are paid (an admittedly modest stipend) to do – to represent the best interests of the communities they serve, and especially the children of those communities. One has to have faith that on Monday, June 12, they will do their job, challenge this prepared set of recommendations, and come up with something better. What do I mean by “better”? I mean a recommendation that will actually serve the best interests of this community and its children. Because that is the one thing that the administration’s recommendations most assuredly do not do.

Here’s what I would say at tomorrow’s meeting if I were one of the trustees:

“The set of recommendations presented by board staff is unacceptable. I will vote against it, and I strongly urge my fellow trustees to do the same.

“It fails to take into account the hard work and final recommendations of the committee set up by this board – the accommodation review committee – to examine the best course of action for the schools in Centre Hastings. In case any of my fellow trustees need reminding: after considerable study, research and discussions with all affected parties, that committee recommended a) that Madoc Township Public School remain open and be expanded to allow students in Grades 7 and 8 from its catchment area to do their Grades 7 and 8 studies there, thus bringing the school to capacity; or b) that the board of education seek Ontario Ministry of Education funding to build a new kindergarten-to-Grade 12 school on a new site, to house students from all three existing schools, for the 2021-22 school year.

“It fails to take into account the tremendously damaging impact that closure of a rural community’s only school would have on that community.

Madoc Township's former schools

A section of the painting that hangs at Madoc Township Public School showing all the one-room schools that it replaced, and that are part of its heritage. Are we really ready to say goodbye to that heritage?

“It fails to take into account the important heritage of this school, the fact that generations of local residents have been educated there and that MTPS and all the community schools that preceded it and formed the foundation for it have played a critically important role in the life and history of Madoc Township and surrounding areas.

“It fails to take into account the promise for future growth and development in Madoc Township and Centre Hastings that an influx of people from Toronto and other urban centres is having in the area. People are leaving the city because of high housing prices and other issues, and are moving to more rural areas. The imminent extension of Highway 407 to just south of Peterborough, making a commute to work in the Toronto area much more feasible, will only increase that migration of young families to this area. School space will be needed.

“It fails to take into account the fact that Madoc Township Public School in in the best physical condition, by far, of the the three local schools. Moving children from a building in good condition to buildings in considerably poorer condition (Madoc Public School and Centre Hastings Secondary) makes no sense – unless it is a cynical strategy to get government money by pleading poor school conditions. How is that good policy for our children?

“It fails to take into account the recent order by Ontario Education Minister Mitzie Hunter that public and Roman Catholic school boards work together to try to resolve school space and enrolment issues. The ministerial document in question says specifically: ‘Prior to commencing with student accommodation changes through closures, it is our government’s strong preference that school board fully explore joint accommodation arrangements with coterminous boards, particularly to maintain a school presence in a rural or isolated community.’ There has been no evidence whatsoever that the administrators of the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board have held talks with their counterparts on the Algonquin and Lakeshore Catholic District School Board on sharing facilities, programs, etc.

“It fails to take into account the problem of lack of program choices for students at Centre Hastings Secondary School. Rather than closing the best, and best-performing, school in the area, this board should be looking at adding the programs that will attract student to CHSS, and keep them there.

http://www.hpedsb.on.ca/ec/directorsOffice/arc/documents/RequestforDelegationStudentEnrolment_SchoolCapacityCommittee2.pdf

One section of the five-acre-plus play area/outdoor space at Madoc Township Public School. (Photo by Denise Gray)

“Incomprehensibly, it fails to take into account the outstanding green space/playground area at Madoc Township Public School. Why would we deprive the community’s students – and students from other board schools – of the opportunity to run and play and explore and lean about nature in this outstanding space?

“Finally, and most importantly, it fails to take into account what is best for the children. Throughout this process, board staff have repeatedly cited “Policy 15.” This board policy says that the board’s first commitment is to “student achievement and well-being.” The well-being of the students who attend Madoc Township Public School now, and who would attend it in the future if it remained open, will in no way whatsoever be aided or improved by closing the school. In essence, this recommendation runs counter to the board’s own policy.

“This recommendation fails on every level. It must be defeated. Instead, through vision and creativity and working with all community partners, we can come up with a much better plan for all children in the central Hastings County area. In the meantime, following the recommendation of the accommodation review committee, Madoc Township Public School should remain open as a kindergarten to Grade 8 school.”

That’s what I’d say if I were a trustee. But of course, I’m not. I hope one or more of the people who are trustees will show their courage and their care for the children and the community they serve, and say something similar. And I hope the rest of the board will listen.

If you care about the future of Madoc Township Public School, please join the conversation at the Facebook group Save Madoc Township Public School. One wonderful thread you’ll find there is a series of posts about why people love our school. You’ll also find some examples of messages people have been sending to the trustees to encourage them to vote against the proposal to close MTPS. Even if you’re reading this a few minutes before Monday’s meeting starts, it’s not too late for you to do the same thing! You can find phone numbers and email addresses for all the trustees here.

We all care about our school, our community and our kids, don’t we? Let’s not give up on them – ever. Even if the vote on Monday, June 12, goes against Madoc Township Public School, there will be another week-long period to lobby trustees before the final vote.

Let’s please do everything – everything – we can to save our school.

A hibernating bumblebee, and an extraordinary school

Breakfast at MTPS 1

Breakfast is served! Every Tuesday, community volunteers Suzanne and John Paul Copeland, whose children were fortunate enough to attend Madoc Township Public School, give back to the school by cooking a hot breakfast that all students can enjoy.

The bell rang. The front door opened. Children started streaming in. One little girl came up and, before doing anything else, hugged Raymond around the knees, which was as high as she reached. The look on Raymond’s face was priceless – ever so slightly startled, but mainly delighted and touched. This little girl didn’t know us, and we didn’t know her. But she knew that because we were among the teachers and school volunteers waiting to say good morning to her and the other kids, we were her friends.

“I went to Wolfe Island!” a tiny boy, again unknown to us until that moment, shouted up in great excitement. Looking down, I smiled to notice from his mismatched socks that he had clearly been in charge of his own wardrobe that morning. Soon we knew quite a bit more about his adventures over the long Easter weekend that had just ended: “I saw a bumblebee! It had been hibernating! And it woke up! And then it went into my dad’s car! And it hibernated there!”

This was such a momentous happening that the boy felt compelled to share the story with us, and with anyone else within range, several times. He told it a couple of times before he’d got his coat off, and a few times more after that. It was a great story each time. It was a story about discovering a little piece of the magic of the natural world.

St. Andrew's donation 1

Presenting a donation from the members of St. Andrew’s United Church, Queensborough, to support the excellent Food for Learning program at Madoc Township Public School: from left, accepting the donation on behalf of the school, are students Isaac Shanks, Braden Shaffer and Curtis Gunter; in the rear is French-toast chef extraordinaire John Paul Copeland (and, hidden behind Isaac, Suzanne Copeland); beside Curtis is principal Leanne Pond; and then there’s me, looking as terrible as I generally do in photos. But all in a good cause! (Photo by Raymond Brassard)

Raymond and I were at Madoc Township Public School that morning a couple of weeks ago to present a donation from the members of our church, St. Andrew’s United in Queensborough, to the Food for Learning program at the school. Principal Leanne Pond, her staff and the parents and others who volunteer at the school have made it their mission to see that breakfast, lunch and snacks are available for every child who wants to partake. As Food for Learning volunteer Suzanne Copeland (whom I’ll tell you more about in a second) put it in a message to me: “Eliminating/reducing hunger keeps the focus on the learning agenda. With the thoughtful way (Food for Learning) is set up at MPTS, there is no stigma attached to grabbing a bite to eat. Great things are happening at MTPS!”

I’d wanted to visit the school to present the donation on a Tuesday, because that is a special day in the Food for Learning work at Madoc Township Public School. Every Tuesday, Suzanne Copeland and her husband, John Paul, volunteer their time to prepare a hot breakfast that’s waiting for the kids as they arrive. It was Suzanne who first made our church congregation aware of the program and the need, and I wanted to see the kids enjoying the fruits of the Copelands’ culinary labours. We weren’t disappointed: as we entered the tiny and somewhat makeshift kitchen where Suzanne and John Paul were working, the delightful smell of French toast and maple syrup greeted us. By the time the kids started pouring through the door, a long table in the hallway had been set up with plates and utensils and the hot French toast and a big bowl of fresh strawberries, and Suzanne and John Paul were right there to serve it up and pour the syrup. Some kids lined up right away; others went to their classrooms, where we saw their teachers waiting to welcome them, deposited their coats and knapsacks, and hurried back to join the line. As far as Raymond and I could see, almost every kid came for French toast, or strawberries, or both. And John Paul and Suzanne dished it up with friendliness and lots of smiles, making frequent dashes back into the kitchen to replenish supplies.

The atmosphere was so warm and welcoming – not only for us, the visitors, but for every kid who came through that door. Madoc Township is a small school, and everyone knows everyone else. No one slips through the cracks, ever. If there’s a problem, a worry, a meltdown, a fear, it will be noticed by a teacher, a fellow student, the principal, the office administrator, a parent volunteer, a custodian – in all likelihood, by every single one of them. The children evidently know that when they are inside the school’s walls, they are among friends – people who are there to help them be their best. Raymond and I felt honoured beyond description that we were – simply by being there – seen as being among that group of friends, helpers and mentors by the kids who spoke to us, hugged us, told us their story of a hibernating bumblebee, and lined up for that amazing breakfast.

I had tears in my eyes as I watched the morning unfold and saw how happy, loved, safe and looked-after those kids are – and as I thought of the world of possibilities that lay before them thanks to the excellent education and the support they are getting in that small rural school. Perhaps our young bumblebee enthusiast with the mismatched socks will grow up to be a renowned naturalist or conservationist. Perhaps the wee girl who trustingly gave Raymond a hug will herself become a teacher, or a doctor, or a psychologist – someone who looks after the well-being of others.

The school day was beginning, and it was time for us to leave. Our departure was slowed a bit by the sound of the national anthem coming over the loudspeakers. “Raymond!” I whispered urgently as he kept walking. “Stop! You’ve got to stop for O Canada!” (Can’t set a bad example for the kids.) So we stood at attention in the hallway, along with Leanne Pond and a few kids with whom she’d been walking and talking as she made her way back to the office. And I was delighted to hear the national anthem played in both French and English.

As we collected our coats at the office, two students were there doing the morning announcements over the loudspeaker system. I was so impressed with a) how well they read them, and b) how much was going on at the school. We heard about a book fair, a Learn with Lego event, and all kinds of other activities for that day and the days ahead.

Just before I walked out the front door, I stopped to take a photo of the portrait of Florence McCoy, MTPS’s founding principal, that hangs in the entryway:

Florence McCoy

Florence McCoy photo info

Mrs. McCoy was both a force of nature and my first principal, the person who, when I was a tiny, scared kid first walking through the doors of Madoc Township Public School, oversaw a school where every child was warmly welcomed, and known, and helped and encouraged in whatever way he or she needed help and encouragement.

“Some things never change,” I thought to myself. At least at Madoc Township Public School.

Madoc Township's former schools

This charming painting that hangs at Madoc Township Public School shows all the one-room schools that it replaced, and that are thus part of its heritage. Burris School (third from the top on right) stood where MTPS is now.

I also thought about how saddened and disappointed Mrs. McCoy would be if she knew that officials with the local public school board had targeted Madoc Township Public School for closure. How this beautiful little rural school that she had worked so hard to get off the ground back in the early 1960s – a central, modern school replacing all the one-room schoolhouses that were scattered around Madoc Township and surrounding areas, including Queensborough – might close its doors forever in just a little over two months. Of how the children from our community would never again get that warm, special Madoc Township Public School welcome at the start of their day.

Madoc Public School playground

The tiny play area for students in kindergarten to Grade 3 at Madoc Public School, which is where students from Madoc Township Public School will be bused if the plan of the public school board’s administration is passed by the trustees on the board. MPS is a good school; I can say that from personal experience, having attended Grades 7 and 8 there long ago, and visited it and spoken to students in more recent times. But I think we can all agree that this small playground with the chain-link fence around it is not outdoor learning at its best.

I thought too about the devastating loss of what is perhaps Madoc Township Public School’s most important asset: the five-acres-plus playground/green space that surrounds it, where children can run and play and have fun and learn about the natural world to their hearts’ content. I thought about our little bumblebee enthusiast. In the town school where the education officials plan to move the MTPS students, the playground for the kids his age is a tiny space containing an even tinier bit of grass, surrounded by a high chain-link fence. There isn’t going to be much opportunity for the little guy with the mismatched socks to discover bumblebees or caterpillars or grasshoppers or blue jays or jack-in-the-pulpits or trilliums or toads in that play space. That is a terrible loss. Inexcusable, I would argue.

http://www.hpedsb.on.ca/ec/directorsOffice/arc/documents/RequestforDelegationStudentEnrolment_SchoolCapacityCommittee2.pdf

One section of the huge play area/outdoor space at Madoc Township Public School. A bit of a contrast with what students can expect if they are bused into the town school next year. (Photo by Denise Gray)

Raymond and I had come in separate cars; after our visit, he headed home to the Manse, and I headed to work. As my car rounded the bend in Hazzards Road just past the school, I had to brake sharply as a collection of rather gigantic wild turkeys made their way across the road and over a fence. Their size, their colours, their dopiness (getting over the fence was quite the challenge for them) were amazing and delightful. This is the kind of thing – a little piece of the magic of the natural world – that kids at Madoc Township Public School get to experience all the time.

I am 100-per-cent sure that Florence McCoy would echo me (and in fact probably is echoing me, from behind her sturdy principal’s desk up there in heaven) as I ask: Why would this amazing school, this place where children are so supported, fed, cared for, loved, and exposed every day to a vast green space where they can enjoy healthy outdoor activity and learn about the magic of the natural world – why would this outstanding school be closed?

The committee of school and community representatives that the board itself set up to study the school-closure proposal recommended against closing Madoc Township Public School. The committee urged instead that kids from Madoc Township and area who are in Grades 7 and 8 be returned to MTPS, rather than (as is currently the case) being bused into town to attend playground-challenged Madoc Public School. If that were to happen, it would return MTPS to its original mission – back when Florence McCoy was running the show – of educating the local children until they were ready for high school. It would also mean that the MTPS building would be full, and fully used.

And it would also mean that another generation, and hopefully many generations to come, of kids from our beautiful rural area would receive the warm welcome, strong support and excellent education that Madoc Township Public School offers.

If you think that’s a good idea, please call, email or write the 10 elected trustees who will make the final decision on MTPS. You can find their contact information here. The trustees next meet on Tuesday, May 23, to prepare a final recommendation on the fate of our local schools. That recommendation will be voted on, and the final decision made, at a meeting on Monday, June 19. I sure wish that before that day the trustees would pay a visit to MTPS, like Raymond and I did. Perhaps they should be invited to do so.

Time is short. The stakes are high. And our school is unique and precious – as Florence McCoy would be the first to tell you.

Or you could just ask the boy with the bumblebee story.

The community speaks up

Madoc Township Public School green space poster

See that tiny dime taped to the middle of the big sheet of green bristol board? That represents the amount of space that children at Madoc Public School have to play compared to those at Madoc Township Public School; the latter students have all that green. Community member Randy Gray came up with this brilliant and powerful representation of what MTPS kids will be facing if their school is closed and they’re moved to the town school.

If you’ve been closely following the story of how our excellent and beloved local elementary school is being threatened with closure, you probably have a good sense of how things went at the public meeting held to discuss the issue last Wednesday. Perhaps you were one of the people who packed the gym at Centre Hastings Secondary School in Madoc to listen and/or speak out. If you weren’t, you may well have heard the report that was on one local radio news outlet; and you can expect to see stories about the meeting in the local weekly newspapers when they arrive in the mailbox a little later this week.

But the best way to learn about what happened at the meeting is to go to (and join, if you haven’t already) the Save Madoc Township Public School Facebook group. There you’ll find (thanks to the volunteers who undertook this project) a Facebook Live streaming of the full meeting, as well as individual videos of the individual speakers. Talk about great coverage!

Because you can see it all in real time, I don’t think I need to go into a lot of detail about what was said at the meeting. I would, however, like to highlight for you a few things that were highlights for me as I sat and took it all in.

First I’d like to offer sincere thanks to the seven trustees from the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board who came out to the meeting. These elected officials have to attend a lot of meetings, and they give up many afternoons and evenings and travel many miles to do so. It’s very much appreciated that they came to CHSS on Wednesday, some travelling from as far away as Tyendinaga and the Bancroft area. One other trustee sent her regrets because she had to attend a similar meeting that night in her own part of Prince Edward County. So that leaves only two of the total 10 trustees who make up the board – and who hold the fate of Madoc Township Public School and the two schools in the village of Madoc in their hands – as a no-show. That’s impressive! And like I said, very much appreciated. So thank you to chair Lucille Kyle and trustees Bonnie Danes, Justin Bray, Mike Brant, Dave Patterson, Mary Hall and Jim Williams.

The main thrust of all the presentations given by members of the public was the two alternative recommendations that have been forward by community volunteers to counter the plan put forward by board administrators. These recommendations are widely seen as preferable to the administrators’ plan. Let’s quickly review, for those who may need a refresher:

The board administration has recommended closing Madoc Township Public School at the end of the current school year, sending all its students to Madoc Public School in the village, and sending the students in Grades 7 and 8 from both elementary schools’ areas to a renovated section of the high school.

The alternative proposals are:

  1. Keep Madoc Township Public School open and bring back its Grade 7 and 8 students. The school went up to Grade 8 when it was built in 1961, but in the early 1970s students in the two higher grades were moved to Madoc Public School. There’s no compelling reason for them to be there, and bringing them back to MTPS will mean our beautiful country school will be fully used. No empty space to maintain, in other words. This recommendation calls for the consolidation of Madoc Public School and CHSS.
  2. Build a new school to house all students, from kindergarten through Grade 12, and to replace all three existing schools. Because this would take time, this would give the existing schools a reprieve of two or three years – at the end of which there would be a state-of-the-art, fully accessible and environmentally friendly facility.

One of the major arguments for keeping MTPS open, cited by speaker after speaker, was the extensive playground and outdoor spaces that it offers students. The school is surrounded by more than five acres of land where children can run, play and learn about the natural world around them. How many schools can boast that?

The space at MTPS was dramatically illustrated by a simple but powerful visual aid brought to the meeting by community member Randy Gray. It was a big piece of green bristol board representing the green space at MTPS. In the centre was a taped a dime – representing the tiny play space at Madoc Public School. Randy had ensured the dimensions were accurate (“Hey, I know how to carry the one,” he joked to me after the meeting as I took his photo. “I went to Madoc Township Public School!”), and it was very, very impressive.

http://www.hpedsb.on.ca/ec/directorsOffice/arc/documents/RequestforDelegationStudentEnrolment_SchoolCapacityCommittee2.pdf

This photo gives you some idea of the vast size of the grounds at Madoc Township Public School. It’s taken from close to the far end of the open fields and playgrounds to the rear of the school, looking toward the school building. The track and everything you see in front of you is where kids can run and play. Photo by Denise Gray

What else was talked about ?

  • Inaccuracies in the information presented to the public and the trustees about renovation needs (and costs) at the three schools. Major work (a roof, new windows) that has already been done and paid for at MTPS was still showing as a future need and a future expense, and thus a negative in considering the building’s future.
  • The crowded-to-the-point-of-dangerous situation in the areas where buses load and unload students at Madoc Public School. Randy Rowe, a school-bus driver and member of Madoc Township council, told the crowd:

    The Madoc schools are already over-congested with parents picking up and dropping off students. Vehicles parked in front of MPS are daily backing out into live lanes of traffic while children and parents are zig-zagging through them to get to their cars. Adding 120 more students [from MTPS] and their families will contribute to an already unsafe situation.

  • Other issues raised by Rowe:
    • Because of the lack of space for bus loading zones at the two schools, three buses in the afternoon have to park in the smoking area outside the high school. Any students riding these buses, he said

      have to pass through the smoking area and then sit until departure time overlooking this daily influence and inhaling cigarette fumes.

    • Adding 120 students to the buses travelling to MPS and CHSS will cause overcrowded buses:

      I know from my experience that an overcrowded bus creates dynamic situations. As we max out the seating capacities on buses it creates quarrelling, fighting and conflicts and becomes unsafe, since the only adult on the bus, the driver, is responsible for so many children.

  • Bruce Buttar, the area representative of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, spoke about how the departure of young people and families, when there are no services such as schools for them, is hurting rural Ontario. The OFA and its partners are working hard to reverse this trend and revitalize rural areas, he said – “but we need a solid school system.” Buttar added that in rural areas, schools are community hubs as well as places for kids to learn; when they are closed, they’re closed for the entire community. He urged the trustees and the board administrators to dare to think differently, to support rural schools and rural life. Hear, hear!
  • One of the most impressive speeches was a brief one from Leslie Chapman, a woman whose family had, back in the 19th century, given the land on which Madoc Township Public School now sits as a place for its predecessor, the small Burris School (SS#9, Madoc Township). She implored the trustees to think about “the rich, rich heritage this school has.” Bravo!
  • Amy Beaton, the parent of a student at MTPS, noted that the board’s decision on our schools is scheduled for June 19, when there are only eight school days left. Eight days, she suggested with emotion evident in her voice, is not nearly enough for the students to say goodbye to their school community. Spending those final days as their much-loved place is being filled with moving boxes and being shut down  “is not a very memorable last few days at school,” she said. And what about honouring the legacy of MTPS? Former students, she noted, would surely want to come, some from afar, and take part in that; how could it be properly done in eight days?
  • Carrie Smith, a Madoc Township councillor, spoke very eloquently and made so many good points. I urge you to watch the video, but here’s an excerpt:

    The closing of our only school will affect who chooses to move into our township, as [the local school is] often a deciding factor for many families. I strongly feel that this will be a deterrent to families … We are becoming a disjointed society with little to tie us to our roots. Madoc Township Public School has provided such a strong sense of community for so many years – and I just can’t help but think it’s the time that we spent together outside in the amazing green space just being kids for a moment longer in time. Our lives are ever-increasingly becoming more and more hectic, and this school is a way for parents to hold on to a rural way of life.”

    Full house at CHSS

    A full house in the gym at CHSS listens a Madoc Township Councillor Carrie Smith (centre, standing, wearing white) makes a plea for our rural school and rural way of life.

  • And there was more:
    • A letter from Tom Deline, the mayor of Centre Hastings (which encompasses the village of Madoc) to say that a big parcel of fully serviced land within the community is readily available as a location for a new kindergarten-to-Grade 12 school.
    • Madoc parent Kari Kramp pointing out that the estimated cost for a new school is less than half the estimated cost of repairs needed at CHSS over the next 20 years: $21 million vs. $48 million. “There are better ways to spend $27 million,” she astutely observed.
    • Concerns about asbestos in all three existing school buildings, and whether it would be a risk if renovations to make space for the Grades 7 and 8 students are done at CHSS.
    • Concerns about whether there will be the necessary facilities and programs at the high school for students with autism and other special needs.
    • A strong plea for keeping a school where children can take advantage of all the benefits of unstructured outdoor play with other kids – which leads to social development, healthy relationships and leadership skills. “What are the benefits of reducing kids’ green space?” was the question asked to the school-board representatives. No answer was offered.

Both the senior administrators and some of the trustees have said that the decision on our local schools is not a done deal – that other options can be considered. The next step in that consideration process is a meeting of the board’s student enrolment/school capacity meeting on Monday, April 10 (3:30 p.m. at the board office, 156 Ann St., Belleville; open to the public). It is then that the trustees will receive the final report and recommendation from the senior administrators, though that report is to be posted on the board’s website a few days before the meeting.

On Wednesday, April 26, also at the board headquarters in Belleville, that same committee will hear delegations from the public about the final proposal. Anyone who wants to say something to the trustees will have to register as a delegation at least five business days in advance of the meeting. The registration form is on the board’s website; here is a direct link.

On Tuesday, May 23, the committee meets again to prepare a recommendation to the full board (the 10 trustees). Again, the meeting is public.

And the final vote by those trustees is to take place Monday, June 19.

I’ll be there. Judging by the impressive turnout last Wednesday, and the impassioned pleas to the trustees to do what’s best for our kids and our community, I expect a lot of you will be too.

“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.