Sunday, April 11, 2010

Don't Close Schools! Integrate and Adapt Schools into the Community!

There are more Reboot Alberta people speaking out in the Edmonton Journal's Letters to the Editor.  This time it is about school closures in Edmonton by the Edmonton Public School Board. 

This time Dick Baker is commenting and noting that communities need more say in what happens to a school. 

Also read the letter from Rebooter Christopher Spencer on school closure.

Full disclosure:  Last year my firm, Cambridge Strategies Inc. did  a conjoint study for the Edmonton Public School Board.  It focused on the key values that Edmontonian feel that should guide and drive issues and approaches to school closure.  Here is a link to the Powerpoint on the survey findings that underscores the points being made in these letters from Rebooters

The most important values attributed to a school to a community were dominated by two criteria.  There is the balance between space and cost issues but the dominant need was for a focus on being able to provide a quality education.  Distance from school was not so critical povided kids did not have to go beyond 3 kms.

Schools were seen as vital to the health and vibrancy of the overall community.  So the school closure issues are much more than cost, it is about education quality and the sense of community. There was a dominant value focus on keeping a school open and adpated to meet community needs regardless of enrollment statistics.

The education focus of a school was the most important consideration.  That was seem as providing extensive programming, with a focus on an adaptive school culture that really prepares students for their future.  The key education element there was seen as a focus on creativity and social integration skills, preparation for post-secondary.  Other important educational concerns was about developing the individual skills of students to prepare them for the workforce and also deal with citizenship and character development. Standardized test results were not highly vallued as measures of quality education.

This all begs questions of governance and how the province, school boards, municipalities and community groups work together to not only save a school but turn it into a community facility that provides quality education and better integrates and also serves larger community needs.  It is a culture shift that is all about integration of uses and recources to meet more community needs including education.
The studies have been done and wrap-around schools are concepts that are well proven to work and benefit education and community outcomes.  The full cost and life cycle accounting methods for multi-use adaptive facility design is ready to be made the new standard for educational infrastructure decisions.  The political will is there to make this cultural shift from the current Minister of Education.  There a need for a more effective collaborative linking of the local community, the municipality and school boards to serve the greater good of neighbourhoods and students best interests when considering school closure decisions. 
The question is larger than just enrollment levels.  It  is about what we "value" as a society and not just about what it "costs" in dollar terms alone.  Citizens know this and have told us that they value community needs and school services as integrated wholes, not as isolated silos.  It is time for some comprehenseive, forward thinking good governance coupled with a dash of political courage.  We need to change the old culture about such decisions where school closures are mostly about dollar costs and not the value of a school and its facilities to serve community concerns.  Simply closing a school forecloses the adaptive and imaginative opportunity costs and chances for community capacity building.  Those options are lost in a shortsighted school closure decision.