doug — off the record

just a place to share some thoughts

Small schools

It has been years of anxiety in the town of Harrow, Ontario.  A small town, with a small secondary school which has had a bullseye on it for a long time.  After years of back and forth, it was decided last week to close the school and ship all the students to Kingsville, Ontario.  From town centre to town centre, along County Road 20, it’s a distance of 15km.  For students in the surrounding area, the total distance to be travelled will vary, of course.

Coming from a community about the size of Harrow where we had our own secondary school, I took a special interest in this.  Since the amalgamation of school boards and communities years ago, we’ve seen all kinds of actions like this.  The result is bigger and bigger institutions and the landscape is dotted with closed and abandoned buildings.  Some get repurposed but they are very few.  The logic is that bigger is better, more efficient, and more economical to support.

One of the economic arguments is that the physical building needs repairs.  Any home owner will let you know that any structure requires continual and preventative maintenance.  If you ignore any building long enough, the potential repair bill soon adds up.

The educational argument is that a more complete program is available as an option in a bigger school with more students, teachers, and classes.  But, with eLearningOntario options, this is largely refuted these days.  Besides, in Ontario, there always is the option to attend a Catholic school should you wish this.  With the number of students that didn’t choose this option, it tells me that parents and students preferred the stay at home option.

There are so many reasons for having a school in your community, whether it’s a small school or a large super school.

  • It does become a community hub for students.  Sporting events, school dances, community events are right there and you can walk to them and meet with the friends that you grew up with
  • Participation in school activities is easily done because you can indeed walk home afterwards.  With a bus sitting in the parking lot ready to depart five minutes after the last class, unless you have your own extra transportation plans, you won’t be able to get involved
  • Student buying power can’t be ignored.  Whether it’s visiting a local restaurant at lunch or some other purchasing outing, local businesses thrive because of the purchase desires of youth
  • Lifelong friendships happen in high school.  I still remain in touch with many friends from my high school days.  University friends?  Not so much
  • Pride in community – there’s something special about having everything in your local community.  I can remember going to the high school on snow days when the buses weren’t running.  It’s where your friends are; it’s just what you do

The list could go on and on.  It involves everything other than the economics or the academics.  It goes to those other intangibles that makes a school a school and part of the community.  Sadly, they seem to have fallen by the wayside in search of the big and the efficient.  Unless you’ve attended a school in a small town or your focus is on bean counting, you can’t really appreciate the above intangibles.

Small schools tend to go that extra mile to make things happen for students.  The teaching load can be far more diverse and teachers work hard to make sure that traditional and non-traditional opportunities are available for students.  Brian Aspinall, a graduate of Harrow District High School, is fond of letting us know that he obtained professional computer certification with the support of his teachers during his time there.

Think of your own high school experiences.  There may be some sad memories but most of them are happy, I’ll bet.  But, when you peel back the covers, the common thread boils down to community. 

You don’t have that real sense when you’re sitting on a yellow bus for the time that it takes to stop and go, gather all the riders, and then bump along to another community altogether.

It’s just sad to think.  My old high school went through the same issue a few years back but some real imagination by the board of trustees and administration made great things happen in a building that wasn’t fully needed by the school.

Of course, this passion and frustration will pass.  In a few years, there will be a whole new generation that’s just used to getting up extra early for the long bus ride to school in another town. 

On the weekend, they may walk by this old abandoned building and wonder about what might have been.

Let’s just hope the town doesn’t become an entry here.


3 responses to “Small schools”

  1. As a former student of Harrow District High School (and small town resident) I am saddened by the recent turn of events. To be quite honest, I am a little teary eyed writing this.

    As you mention, this “battle” has been going on for decades as Grade 8 students were moved from the elementary school to the high school to boost numbers when I was a student there in the late 90s.

    I have fond memories of that building. I felt the teachers genuinely cared. Some challenged us more than others and we knew which classes to take as we “played school.”

    In particular, I remember having 4 students in my grade 13 Calculus class, 6 in Physics and 8 in Algebra. I believe we had 13 grads that year from grade 13. This meant a few different things.

    1) We weren’t skipping class because people would know very quickly (and who were we hanging with?).
    2) I learned the benefits of small class sizes a long time ago.
    3) Perhaps native but I don’t recalls too many cliques – everyone knew everyone. Everyone went to the same weekend parties. Perhaps we all knew a little TOO much of each other.

    I equate many of my grade 13 successes to such small numbers. Imagine having so much of your teacher’s time readily available – including Resource. Imagine my confidence when I started University. Problem was, I was confident in my abilities but quickly realized I was lacking a certain skill set.

    I studied Computer Science at the University of Windsor. I learned very quickly that my peers had a leg up on me as they had taken computer courses in high school. I did not. Truthfully, I was unaware such courses even existed. My confidence was matched with anxiety, fear and this gut feeling that I had so much work to do to “catch up” just to begin my program. I felt a little dis-serviced.

    Academics aside, many of us also played on sports teams. Unfortunately we couldn’t field a football team so one never existed when I was a student. I remember friends transferring schools to Amherstburg or Villanova to play sports. We didn’t have many junior teams so that meant you had to be quite good to play senior in grades 9 and 10.

    Still, there was this “family” feel. Many of the teachers lived in town so it wasn’t uncommon to see them in a more natural setting on weekends. This made it easier to seek advice and ask for help as we didn’t have the internet then like we do now.

    My parents still live in Harrow. I wonder if the community will slowly become a retirement town. It’s not really on a convenient route to anything. People usually only attend to play hockey or visit the fair.

    I wouldn’t be where I am today without those supporting me at HDHS. The principal at the time asked me to construct the first ever Harrow District High School website – and he paid me! There were many factors contributing to me wanting to study CS but a few stick out.

    In grade 11 I took a Media Studies class. I asked the teacher if I could make a website as a project and she agreed (although apprehensive). She later told a colleague and I was hired to make a website for his local clothing business – all this before the school’s website gig. You see, this teacher got the ball rolling, financially. I was 16 and I was making money by writing HTML which I was doing as a hobby to begin with. Not to mention the A+ in the course 🙂

    The timing for Microsoft’s “Nominate Your School” campaign in impeccable. It was an honour for me to be asked to share a fond memory of a teacher from my youth. Little did I know I was being setup with a surprise reunion which was caught on camera. Check out the reunion video and nominate your school below – there is a weekish left in the contest:

    To the students of Harrow District High School, cherish the memories you make. Keep an open mind as you look to move to a new location. You will bring old friends, make new ones and meet new teachers. I guarantee the teachers are excited for your arrival. Remember, school is more than just a building. It is a culture – a community. Bring Harrow’s culture with you.

    And one last time, go Hawks!


  2. […] This post is in reply to Doug Peterson’s post here. […]


  3. […] Small schools | doug — off the record […]


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