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Tonight, in the suburban stronghold of the Ontario government -- in the very riding of the Education Minister -- a young girl will sing out a plea to her local board of education to return a little happiness to the public schools.

. . . The future stands before me

And I am lost for words

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As I walk on down the hallway

No voices can be heard.

Kayla's song:

Kayla Thompson, 13, of Whitby, is lamenting the joylessness in Ontario's high schools. After a year with few extracurricular activities, the hallways are quiet. Five years of government changes in education mean little compared to that. It has been a year of chaos, strife and anxiety. The big issue for parents now is not standardized tests or curriculum change or literacy or even budgets. It's the loss of heart and spirit from the public schools.

"It's probably a happier place at Kingston Penitentiary," Whitby mother Charlene Westbrook said of Henry Street High School, which her son attends.

Playgrounds, especially in Toronto, were demolished this year; teachers worked to rule; strikes closed schools in several cities. Extracurricular programs were cut in 75 per cent of the province's public high schools.

More than 30 per cent of Grade 10 students failed a basic literacy test set by the province.

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Each event tossed up another image. Elementary schoolyards with a flattened, bombed-out look. Parents lining up in cafeterias at lunchtime to meet a working-to-rule teacher for their end-of-term interview. Toilet paper dangling from schoolyard trees in the four weeks of a janitors' strike. Shattered eggs left on the front doors of stately high schools for days and days, as students and staff skulked by.

All this made the Ontario government's top-to-bottom education overhaul seem a disaster.

It was in 1995 that then-education minister John Snobelen suggested he would "invent a crisis" in education so the public would support reform. In fact, the overhaul came first. Then, this year, the crisis.

A potent symbol of the year's chaos was found at Henry Street High, in a middle-class Whitby neighbourhood in the riding of Education Minister Janet Ecker.

It was here that principal Carol Dempsey called the police when 35 parents -- housewives, lawyers, secretaries -- showed up to protest the suspensions of their children, who had walked out of their classrooms to protest three years without extracurricular activities.

The symbolism was apt. The parents were so angry about what was happening to their children's education that the school system felt besieged and down to its last line of defence: police in uniform.

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At first the parents thought it was funny. "This must be a joke," Lynda Doumani, a legal secretary, recalls thinking. Whitby is a small place; the parents knew the police as individuals, as neighbours.

But then the parents became angry. "It seemed surreal," Ms. Doumani continued. " 'This is silly. We're taxpayers. We're parents. We're here for the good of our children. We're not here to vandalize, cause trouble or disrupt.' We were there for answers."

Now they are looking for answers elsewhere, in places that were once unimaginable to them.

Ms. Westbrook is thinking of sending her daughter to the Catholic school even though she believes "religion is supposed to be taught in your temple or church or synagogue. Curriculum shouldn't be faith-based."

But her daughter has a learning disability, and Ms. Westbrook feels that "the fun part of school are the extras," and that is what may keep her daughter from dropping out of school. "It's a tough choice we have to make."

Ms. Doumani has applied to enrol both her daughters in a private school next year, at a cost of more than $10,000 each. "I'm disappointed, disillusioned with the public system. I'm tired of the labour strife. What happened in Toronto [a support-staff strike]could certainly happen in Durham. It's the students that suffer."

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Her dissatisfaction touches on the most basic concerns of parents.

"I don't think it's a healthy, nurturing environment," she said.

"There's little or no remedial help available to them. We're paying for a private tutor for our daughter. We don't see her being the kind of student we think she has the ability to be."

So much negativism has seeped into the schools that young teachers are leaving the profession in large numbers, said Rick Victor, the head of the Ontario Principals' Council. "They tasted teaching and found that it's more of a bitter than a sweet taste."

Stress permeates the schools, he said. "It's like a household. If the parents are feeling stressed, even if they try not to articulate it, the kids still feel it."

Kayla's song, The Future's Plea, written by 17-year-old Rob Davies and recorded on a compact disc, is part of the election campaign of Steven Murray, a Grade 11 student at Henry High, who was recently chosen minister of provincial affairs for the Ontario Secondary School Students Association.

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Elementary school was "awesome" -- a full plate of sports, spirit weeks, dances, computer clubs and play days -- but for three years Mr. Murray has attended high school without after-school programs.

"It's been hell," the 17-year-old said, speaking of the current school year. "There's no heart, no spirit. Nothing's there. You just go and sit at your desk and stare at your teacher talking."

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