Paul Bennett, director at Schoolhouse Consulting and adjunct professor of education at Saint Mary’s University, spoke in River John last night as part of his book tour for “The Last Stand.” It addresses the loss of schools when the population in small communities dwindles. Bennett has worked with River John to develop a community hub plan in order to save River John Consolidated School. The Chignecto-Central Regional School Board voted in March to close the school in two years with the option to rescind its decision if the board is impressed with the hub plan.
Amanda Jess did a Q&A with Bennett about his latest book, “The Last Stand: Schools, Communities and the Future of Rural Nova Scotia,” and the community hub project in River John.
Q: Can you tell us about your new book?
A: My new book, The Last Stand, is a call to action in defence of small schools at the heart of threatened rural communities. The clock is ticking for small villages and remote communities in Nova Scotia and the loss of the school can be a death knell. This book, written in collaboration with the Nova Scotia Small Schools Initiative Public Interest Research Group, is a sequel to my earlier history, “Vanishing Schools, Threatened Communities.” This little book advocates the "schools-at-the-centre" rural development strategy and demonstrates how schools can be a focus for revitalization. Transforming schools into true community hubs can be a force for rejuvenation, giving small communities a new lease on life.
Q: It includes a bit about the River John community hub school project. Can you elaborate on that?
A: The River John Community Hub School project is featured in the book as a real example of putting the hub model into practice. It's an exciting and innovative initiative sparked by Abby Taylor and the study committee in responding to the recent school review for closure process. Faced with the threat of closure, the local community rallied around the school and developed their own plan to convert the school into a true community hub.
The Chignecto-Central Regional School Board sat up and took notice. With the encouragement of local board member Vivian Farrell, the local councillor, local businesses, the RCMP, and a film production company banded together to develop a multi-use plan for the school, assuring its sustainability. Today, Reverend Greg Dickson and the River John Community Association are meeting to formalize the business case and an implementation plan.
Q: What is the idea behind community hub schools?
A: Schools are vitally important community assets, not liabilities. While we cannot reverse demographic decline, we can respond in a far more sensible fashion by calling a permanent halt to the destructive school closure process. We are advocating the transformation of schools with declining enrolments into community hub schools, starting long before they are slated for closure. A true community hub school is a "two-way hub" where children's learning activities within the school contribute to community development and, in turn, community activities contribute to, and enrich, children's learning within the school.
Q: What would it do for River John specifically?
A: The River John Community Hub plan would incorporate the day school teachers and students into a more viable, sustainable centre of community-based activities and services. The Consolidated School would remain, in essence, the "anchor tenant" occupying most of the space. Through a genuine co-operative effort, guided by the RJCA, community groups and enterprises would occupy the balance of the space, operating programs over greatly extended hours. Early childhood learning might be expanded or supplemented by full day primary education. The local RCMP, for example, might offer street proofing and counselling against cyberbullying right in the school. A local film company, FLAWED Productions, would offer digital filmmaking classes. Local authors like Sheree Fitch might assist by running children's reading workshops.
Q: With the election approaching, what message would you like to send to political leaders about rural schools?
A: My book “The Last Stand” seeks to put an end to the adversarial, divisive school review process and to replace it with a schools-at-the-centre community development strategy. The current pause in the school review process will accomplish little unless it is followed up by a completely new approach focused on stimulating community hub development and re-building sustainable rural communities. To save the small communities, save their schools. Support local initiatives, community-based schooling, modelling sustainable living practices and providing education on a more human, Nova Scotian scale.