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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 20, Number 5, March 2008

Heart of the community, Hedley Elementary School to close

By Ritchie Kendrick

On Wednesday, January 23, 2008, Hedley Elementary School joined the long list of schools that have fallen victim to the efficiencies of the Ministry of Education after the school board of the Southern Okanagan Similkameen District 53 voted 4 to 2 to close Hedley School.

Many of you may know Hedley from the poster of the Mascot Mine site sitting precariously overlooking the town site of Hedley, which sits in a quiet stretch of the Similkameen Valley between Keremeos and Princeton. During the past few months this poster has served as an analogy for the precarious position of the school itself.

Declining enrolment and the cost of getting district support staff (windshield time as one board member put it) had put this little school in the headlights for the second time in five years. To the school board’s credit they made a substantial investment in the school a few years ago by moving the school into a new building. This investment in infrastructure should have been paralleled with an investment in time and effort to look into the needs of the school, in providing support for the teachers, support staff, students, and the community of Hedley.

While many communities continue to reel from the impact of school closures, there seems to be little regard paid to the broader impact these closures have on their communities. This closure of Hedley Elementary will ensure the demise of an opportunity for community-based schooling for many, many years. Removing a school from a community will have a direct impact on its long-term growth.

The opposition has finally recognized the seriousness of this issue and in an NDP press release on January 29, Juan de Fuca MLA John Horgan asks: "How many communities have to see their schools closed before the Campbell government will fix the problem they created?... It’s time for the province to recognize that buildings are a part of the education equation. Constant rounds of closures destabilize communities and create long-term planning problems for regional government."

This is so apropos of Hedley, whose closure comes at a time when the community is in a state of change. New economic development in the area may bring in many families who would opt for residing in Hedley if a school still existed. The Fraser Valley Health Authorities’ opening of a Rehab Centre just south of Hedley will bring in approximately 60 workers. The opening of the copper mine in Princeton, 20 minutes down the road, will also attract families. This short-sighted approach to closure of vital links within a community needs to be re-examined province-wide. In Hedley, requests from the local MLA, the regional district, local unions, and all levels of local government to postpone the closure fell on deaf ears.

What makes this particular closure even more intriguing is the fact that the board had made it clear from the start of this, that it was the quality of education that was the main issue and not funding. Let the parents be the judge of that quality. After all, it is the Ministry of Education that encourages and supports parental involvement in the decision making at their child’s school. They love their school. It provides them with the education they want for the children.

In order to help justify their argument regarding the quality of educational services (compared to the school that will receive these students) they used FSA results. FSA results and graduation rates over an extended period were garnered from the ministry’s data branch and used as part of their rationale in a report to parents justifying this closure. These results are worthless and as Harry Lalli (local MLA) pointed out at the January 23 meeting, irrelevant due to the sample size. The use of FSA results and grad rates as data to justify school closures is very concerning and I’m sure not the ministry’s intended use of FSA results.

School boards are mandated to bring educational services to the people who reside in their communities. And one of our school board’s priorities is, "promoting personal and social responsibility and respect within a safe and caring school community." How is this priority reflected in the two hours of daily bussing (for the kids at Hedley) and the difficulty for parental involvement and volunteerism at their child’s school?

In the past, as president of the teachers’ union in the South Okanagan Similkameen, I have questioned the need for the establishment of certain programs in our district. The answer I received from the superintendent was that parents want choice and the board has an obligation to provide it. Why then would that obligation not extend to the parents of Hedley? They choose to keep their kids in their community school.

Michell Nimchuk, a parent with two children, recently moved to Hedley and had to choose Cawston School or switch to Hedley Elementary. He chose Hedley. "We have been thoroughly happy with our choice. Our children have both thrived academically and socially at Hedley School. It is a main fixture in the community. It is a place of learning, a place where children know that they belong and are respected, it is a place of caring, a place of gathering for young families, and a place where the community can take part in the raising of their children."

Ritchie Kendrick is president of South Okanagan Similkameen Teachers’ Union.


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