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.

A community comes together for a cause: saving our schools

bob-sager-at-public-meeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our school, our community, our future: have your say tomorrow

Madoc Township Public School 1

Our terrific rural school, Madoc Township Public School. Please let’s not let this be its final year of educating students from our community!

I am deeply indebted to another writer for most of the words that appear in today’s post. They are important words.

They are about the future of the local public school that serves us here in Queensborough: Madoc Township Public School. And they are by extension also about the future of our rural community as a whole.

Because really, is there anything much more important to a rural community than a school for that community’s children? A good school is one of the key factors attracting families to any area. We live in a time when several things – sky-high hydro rates, far-from-universal access to high-speed internet, and a shortage of other important services – are working against development, growth and prosperity in rural Ontario. Now, I am not one of those who despairs about that situation; I actually think we live in a time of great promise for our rural way of life. After the big migration from the country to the urban areas of this province that took place over the past 40 years or so, people are beginning to recognize that there is a very great deal to be said for living where there is space, and beauty, and fresh air, and neighbours you know who help you out when you need it. Central Hastings County, where Queensborough is located, is attracting more and more smart and creative people who appreciate our way of life – and those people include some families with young children. But we could use a lot more of those young families. And closing our local school – as the Hastings Prince Edward District School Board, admittedly facing some big financial challenges, is proposing to do (as you can read here) – is not, in my humble opinion, the way to go about it.

Madoc Township Public School 3

Our community school’s simple and excellent motto (devised in the years I attended it): “Friendship and Learning.” Well said.

In a recent post I let you know about a very important event that is happening tomorrow evening – Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017. It’s the first public meeting in the process the school board has set up to consider and decide on its proposal to close Madoc Township Public School and bus its students from our community (Madoc Township, Elzevir Township [that’s where Queensborough is] and Tudor and Cashel Township) to Madoc Public School in the village of Madoc. Madoc Public is a great little school, don’t get me wrong; many years ago, when I was growing up here at the Manse, I attended Grades 7 and 8 there, after doing Grades 1 through 6 at Madoc Township Public School. But the “town” school is already quite full, it has extremely limited playground space (whereas the playground at Madoc Township is magnificently huge), and it is located right next to the regional high school, which for some parents means concerns about their young children being exposed to “the big kids” and their sometimes worrisome activities, like smoking and whatnot, earlier than they would really like.

The meeting takes place in the gym of that high school (Centre Hastings Secondary), 129 Elgin St., Madoc, beginning at 6:30 p.m. As bad luck would have it, there is a freezing-rain warning in effect for Tuesday evening here in eastern Ontario. But people, please try to come if you can. It is so important to show the powers that be how much we care about our school, how important it is to our lives, our families and our community. I will be there, and I sure hope you will too.

But on to those words from another writer that I mentioned. Here is a letter that my friend Grant Ketcheson of Madoc Township sent this past week to the new chair of the Hastings Prince Edward District School Board (and copied to our local trustee on the board, Bonnie Danes, a former teacher at Madoc Township Public School). Grant’s family, the Ketchesons, is one of the oldest in Hastings County, and he himself is a walking repository of local history – and by that I don’t mean just dates and names, but living history: knowledge and stories about how things were done in rural areas once upon a time, and how things changed over the years, and how that all turned out and is still turning out. He well remembers the establishment of Madoc Township Public School, and knows as much as anyone does about its importance to our community.

Here (with Grant’s kind permission) is his letter. He says it better than I ever could.

Ms. Lucille Kyle
Chair
Hastings Prince Edward District School Board

Dear Ms. Kyle,

It was disturbing to hear the report that Madoc Township School was one of the schools recommended for closure by Hastings Prince Edward District School Board officials. While we realize that Madoc Township, like many areas, has experienced a drop in enrolment, the truly disturbing aspect of this report is that nowhere do we hear mention of “benefit to the students.” One can almost read between the lines another theme i.e. “What have students got to do with this? We have a business to run.”

I will wager that the mandarins in the Belleville office moving their educational chess pieces around have never visited the school communities that they are about to destroy. Yes, in rural areas, these are not just schools, they are school communities! I would also wager that these same mandarins have never driven on Baldwin or Elgin Streets in Madoc at bus time. It is a scene of chaos. Now they are planning to add to this with more buses! Perhaps when you are disrupting a whole community, it is easier to be like military drone pilots who don’t have to go anywhere near the damage they create.

In an era when we are becoming increasingly alarmed at the level of inactivity and obesity in our children, it makes little sense to close an educational facility like Madoc Township School with a spacious 5.5-acre playground that includes a ¼-mile running track. Apparently we are now preparing to lose this unique location and move students to Madoc Public School with a fenced-in area not large enough to be enjoyed by all students at the same time. Certainly, the wire fence makes a great place on which to lean while exercising thumbs on a wireless device! What the experts from the board office fail to realize is that once we lose large playground areas, we can never get them back.

My wife, a teacher for more than 35 years, has been on yard duty in more than a half-dozen school yards. She can attest to the difference in behaviour when children have plenty of room to run, play and just be kids. Madoc Township School is one of the very few in existence that has the luxury of lots of playground space.

It would seem to make more sense to reverse the decision, made some years ago, that took grade 7-8 students out of the school and sent them in to Madoc. Certainly the school is in excellent shape as it has had a new roof and all new windows in the last two years. Of course, we were not thinking of any realignment of schools when that money was spent, were we?

It would behoove administrators and decision makers to visit schools such as Madoc Township School before they destroy them, just to see what kind of facility they have. We personally know young couples who have moved to this area to live in a rural setting and to have their children attend a school in such a unique setting. Not to mention the fact that recent EQAO ratings rate this little school highest in Hastings County.

It might be a good idea for board members to have a look at the value a the target before they let the drones destroy it!

Sincerely,
Grant Ketcheson

cc. Bonnie Danes

Before I sign off, I thought I’d show you a little video I took today of the amazing playground area that Grant and I have mentioned. By my count, it has two soccer pitches, a baseball diamond, lots of playground equipment – and tons of space for other activities, like track and field and those great playground games I remember from my youth. (Red Rover, anyone? For a healthy childhood, it beats Snapchat any day.) Here’s a look at that wide open space:

Readers: I hope to see you tomorrow (Tuesday) evening for that meeting at CHSS. Let’s show we care about our community school and that we want to see it – and our community – survive and thrive.

A Canada Post puzzle, or: torn between two places

queensborough-on-the-map

Queensborough (starred in this Google map) is within a 15-minute drive of two larger centres: Madoc (centre left) and Tweed (lower right). Officially we are part of the Municipality of Tweed (or the Greater Tweed Area, the GTA, as some wags like to call it), but our connections – schools, shopping, and most especially postal service – are historically closer to Madoc. Click here to read an earlier post about whether “going to town” means Madoc or Tweed for us.

“You don’t need to use the RR number in your addresses any more,” the friendly clerk at the post office in Madoc told me a few months ago. Or actually – my memory for word-perfect conversations being wobbly at best, plus did I mention that this was several months ago? – what she might have said was, “You shouldn’t use the RR number in your addresses any more.”

Are you wondering what I’m talking about? If so, you surely don’t live in rural Canada, where RRs – the number of the rural route that your particular postal-delivery person follows – have been entrenched pretty much since there’s been postal delivery. For probably all of the past century, and more than the first decade of this one, rural addresses were “Katherine Sedgwick, RR#2 (or RR2 if you were feeling too rushed to include the number sign) Madoc, Ont.” And then in the early 1970s they added newfangled postal codes, which made lots of traditionalists hopping mad; you can read all about that here. So my mailing address back in the days when I was growing up here at the Manse in Queensborough was

Katherine Sedgwick
RR#2
Madoc, Ont.
K0K 2K0

RR#2 was the route based out of the Madoc post office that covered Queensborough and surrounding areas. RR#1 was the section of Madoc Township more or less due north of the village of Madoc, while RR#3 was the hamlet of Cooper and environs. I think there were a couple of other RRs for the areas south of Madoc as well.

When Raymond and I bought the Manse five years ago – Five years already! Wow! – and my focus returned to Queensborough after an absence of almost 40 years, I was vaguely aware that the RR number alone wouldn’t cut it any more, address-wise. Sometime during the 15 years I’d lived in Montreal, Ontario had decided that every address needed a street number, even if the street in question was a dusty country road. The main reason for this, as I understand it, was so that emergency responders could more easily find where they were going – and so were born what rural Ontarians call “911 numbers,” as opposed to “addresses.” This initiative also resulted in rural roads that had never before had names suddenly getting them. The road that the Manse was on, nameless back in my 1960s and ’70s childhood here, is now Bosley Road, named for one of the families that once lived on it. And the Manse’s number on Bosley Road – its 911 number – is 847.

Our mailbox

Our brand-new (in 2012) mailbox at 847 Bosley Rd., RR#2 Madoc.

So ever since Raymond and I got our mailbox in operation, the address I had been using for us was

Katherine Sedgwick
847 Bosley Rd.
RR#2
Madoc, Ont.
K0K 2K0

But then the post-office clerk made that comment about not using RR numbers. Clearly this required further investigation.

It turns out that, just in the period when Raymond and I were still living and working in Montreal and visiting the Manse on weekends when we could, Canada Post was beginning the process of eliminating rural routes. You can read about that here and here, in pieces out of the Grande Prairie (Alta.) Daily Herald-Tribune and the more local Peterborough Examiner from late summer and fall 2012, a few months after we bought the Manse.

Now, I like to think I’m reasonably plugged into the news – being a journalist and all – but somehow or other I remained utterly oblivious to this development at Canada Post. I am pretty sure it’s because during the main period of its implementation I was still living in Montreal, where RRs are unknown and have zero impact on daily life.

But let’s move on to the present day – a few months after the clerk at the post office basically told me (in the nicest possible way) to get with the program. Here’s what I have done in response to that comment:

One: Most of the time, kept using RR#2 in my address. Because it’s the old-fashioned way, and I like old-fashioned things.

Two: When I’m rushed – like, when I’m trying to write many dozens of Christmas cards, as I was last month – dropped the RR#2 from my return address, knowing that not only would it still be correct, but Canada Post would probably like me better.

Three, and this is the big one (not to mention the point of this post): Begun to wonder and worry a bit about where Queensborough falls in this brave new RR-less world. Let me explain.

Ever since the mid-1960s, when the hamlet of Queensborough lost its own small post office – which had been very ably managed in my early childhood years here by the late Blanche McMurray at the general store that she and her husband, Clayton, ran – Queensborough has been served by mail deliverers based at the post office in Madoc. We were always, as I mentioned above, Madoc Rural Route No. 2. (And of course in my mind, if possibly nowhere else, we still are.)

But here’s the thing: in the late 1990s, when the Ontario government in its wisdom decided that many small Ontario municipalities needed to merge into each other and become larger (and theoretically more efficient) municipalities, Queensborough became a part of the newly created Municipality of Tweed. Until then we had been one of the two (or was it three?) hamlets in the extremely rural municipality known as Elzevir Township; but Elzevir, while it still exists in name, is now part of the much larger Municipality of Tweed, which also swallowed up the former Hungerford Township south of the village of Tweed. At the same time, the former village of Madoc and township of Huntingdon merged to become the Municipality of Centre Hastings. Many other such mergers happened all over the province, with the resultant sad loss of many historical names and geographical designations: goodbye, for instance, Victoria County, and hello “City of Kawartha Lakes.” Don’t get me started.

tweed-logo

The Municipality of Tweed includes us here in Queensborough.

Anyway. Long story short, Queensborough is and has been for nearly two decades a part of the Municipality of Tweed. We pay our taxes to Tweed, we take our trash and recycling to the dump in Tweed, we vote for Tweed councillors (and are quite ably represented by them); in pretty much every reckoning, including geographically, we are part of Tweed.

But our post office is in Madoc! And thus our mailing addresses have Madoc in them. And without that RR in those addresses, they look like this:

Katherine Sedgwick
847 Bosley Rd.
Madoc, Ont.
K0K 2K0

Which makes it look like Bosley Road is in Madoc! Which it isn’t! Yikes! Wrong town! While we had that RR in place, the Madoc part of our address made sense; without it, it doesn’t. Bosley Road is, for better or worse, in Tweed.

Madoc Post Office

The post office in Madoc, whence comes the mail that arrives at the Manse and in the rest of Queensborough. But is Madoc our address? It’s a bit of a puzzle.

I fear that the disappearance of RRs from our addresses is going to lead to future confusion. Already Google and other online location services are befuddled. When, for instance, I post a photo on the social-media app Instagram and try to add my location to it, things go quite haywire. The suggestions that come up include “Queensborough Community Centre, 1853 Queensborough Rd., Madoc” (which, again, makes it sound like the community centre is in Madoc when in fact it too is in Tweed); “Tweed, Ontario”; “Madoc Fair Grounds, Madoc”; “Eldorado, Ontario”; and so on. Not the one designation I do want, which is, of course, “Queensborough, Ont.” When I do a search for that, I get no results.

(Though for a brief shining moment – actually a couple of weeks – last fall I found that Instagram would allow me to find and use Queensborough as a location. Then it stopped. Weird.)

So yeah: this disappearing RR thing is leaving us in Queensborough in a bit of location limbo, We know where we are; but will people trying to find us?

Then again: what better way to keep our little jewel of a village our own special secret?