Now, let's face it, the decision to close a school is never an easy or a popular one. Schools are often a social hub (for child and parent) of a neighbourhood or community, and the idea of a short walk to school versus a longer drive or bus ride inevitably raises the ire of parents.
When I was a Superintendent in rural school district in eastern Ontario in the 1990s we were faced with a similar dilemma. The previous Board and administration had selectively closed a number of small rural schools which had raised the political hackles in a number of other communities who perceived themselves to be next on the chopping block.
Urban neighbourhoods love to keep their local schools (a 1988 study in Toronto found that the number one reason that parents chose their local public school over its fully funded Roman Catholic counterpart was that the public school was closer to their home - quality of education was not a major factor!). But that attachment comes nowhere near the desire of small isolated communities to fight against any closures. For many of them, the school is the last existing institution that binds the village together. The general store has been supplanted by box store malls twenty kilometres away, the local church is virtually empty, the post-office has been shut and all that is left is the local school. It is the one public gathering place, the local park and recreation centre, and the only remaining link between their child and her or his community. For villages like Tamworth, Centreville, and Yarker, school closure was a non-starter.
After much public consultation, we decided to take a middle course with respect to school consolidation. Rather than close schools and move students, we twinned them. Eventually there were five pairs of partner school. The two twinned schools shared one administrative team, resource teachers, and specialized equipment and teaching/learning materials. In addition, classes were paired on a regular basis with their counterparts from the partner school for joint studies, field trips and activities. How much money did we save? Not much. It turned out that the real benefits were not financial. In actual fact it was the wide range of unintended outcomes that made the project such a great success.
To begin with, the cross-pollination of students from different schools and villages was fantastic. Having spent years with the same small cohort group, the infusion of a fresh crop of peers had an amazing impact on the social dynamic of both school communities. New friendships were made, academic partners were identified and the students were energized by a change in routine and atmosphere. For their teachers, the impact was no less dramatic. Having been the sole teacher at one grade level for years, all of a sudden each of them had a teaching partner with whom they could share units, resources and ideas. The quality of instruction improved in each of the schools and we saw unexpected jumps in standardized test scores at all levels. Finally, when the first groups of graduates moved into high school, they came as part of a larger cohort, had already had exposure to students from other parts of the county, and transitioned much more smoothly into the secondary panel.
Ironically our experience, which was uniquely suited to a sprawling rural school district measuring 50 km east to west and stretching from a school on an island in Lake Ontario to an isolated rural village school 200 km to the north, makes a pretty good case for the closure of underpopulated urban schools. Setting aside financial considerations - both in terms of economies of scale and the possibility of leasing or selling surplus space - the academic argument for closure and consolidation is very strong.
In addition to the social and academic benefits of consolidating school populations such as we experienced, you also have the chance to concentrate resources - human, technological, facility etc. where they can be shared by a larger group of students. Issues such as class size and composition are easier to resolve in a larger school, multi-grade classes tend to disappear and the opportunity for greater collaboration among faculty can have a huge impact on the quality of teaching and learning for every child involved.
School closure is not a popular concept, but a strategic approach to the use of available resources is more likely to result in an improvement in the quality of education than the maintenance of small, under-resourced and sparsely populated buildings across the city.