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As money moves west, empty schools on the rise in Atlantic Canada


The smallest school in the Annapolis Valley Regional School Board can accommodate about 300 students. Due to Nova Scotia's rapidly aging population, that's about 220 desks too many.

There are currently 82 pupils at Newport Station District School, which serves kindergarten to Grade 6, learning amid empty classrooms, a gym that needs upgrading and windows in need of replacing. Last month, the board voted to close the school, arguing pupil population had declined to a point "where it is increasingly difficult to provide the best possible education for the students."

It was a stark acknowledgment that school enrolment here is moving in only one direction: down. At its peak in 1971, when baby boomers were flooding into schools, enrolment in the province hit 215,000; today it is around 125,000 and, by 2020, is expected to drop to levels not seen since before the First World War (in 1910, there were 108,000 students in the system).

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As a result, fewer and fewer children are spread out from Yarmouth on the southwest coast to the top of Cape Breton Island. The province is slicing education budgets, educators are wringing their hands and parents are fighting to save schools and spare their children the prospect of disrupted learning and longer commutes.

And the dwindling school population is symptomatic of much larger forces that are reshaping the country, and sharpening contrasts within it – particularly between East and West. Rural Canada is being hollowed out, birth rates are declining and, in the Atlantic provinces, immigration is not making up the difference. Most importantly, money is moving West – and Atlantic workers are following.

In Nova Scotia, there are an estimated five million square feet of empty space across the largely rural province, the equivalent of 38 vacant high schools. Darrell Dexter's NDP government has realigned funds with the declining enrolment: Another $13.4-million was chopped from the $1-billion education envelope in the provincial budget delivered this week.

Over the past few weeks, parents have learned the fate of their community schools. The Strait Regional School Board in eastern Nova Scotia recently voted to close three schools (parents are trying to use the courts to keep at least two of them open); the Halifax Regional School Board, the largest in the province, is also closing down three. In addition to Newport Station, a high school in the Annapolis Valley is on the chopping block as well, as is an elementary school on Brier Island with three pupils – its enrolment was going to drop to one next year.

This is a sensitive issue for the province, and the battle has gotten nasty in the past. Late last year, Education Minister Ramona Jennex fired an entire elected school board after it refused to identify schools for review and an outside audit determined it dysfunctional.

Parents are upset and vow not to give up the fight. "Our children are in a fantastic school," says Elaine Benoit, whose two children attend Newport Station. "It's just so nice to be able to talk to the teachers, or the secretary or the principal and they know who you are, they know who your children are. You don't have to explain things. It's been wonderful."

She says she's never felt that her children, both of whom are in split classes, were losing out on extracurricular programming or other resources that come with a larger school. No date has yet been set for the closing – it could happen any time between now and 2016, she says, noting that no other school has been identified as a replacement. "That's also unsettling for parents and children and the staff," she says.

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Adding pressure to the debate is that Nova Scotia's schools are also aging – many have reached or are beyond their 50-year life span and need to either be torn down or renovated. "I know parents love their community schools, but in reality those community schools that we have are old, very, very old," says Irvine Carvery, the chair of the Halifax Regional School Board.

None of the changes in Nova Scotia should come as a surprise. Recent statistics showed the province had the largest percentage of seniors in the country; immigration rates are low, as is the birth rate.

Atlantic economist Elizabeth Beale, president of the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council, describes the drop in birth rate as "very dramatic," noting that in 1996 there were 56,000 children in the zero-to-four age group, but by 2006 there were just 42,000. Two-thirds of the decline took place in rural areas, she says – a 30-per-cent drop over 10 years.

Another 2,200 students are expected to leave the system next year. Now, the challenge for the province is "to make sure that while you're paring back expenditures you are not damaging educational outcomes," Ms. Beale says.

Already, Nova Scotia students perform below the national average in math and reading. "You can use a lot of your money simply supporting buildings rather than supporting outcomes," she says.

In February, Ms. Jennex released a new education plan, Kids and Learning First, to deal with the consequences of the declining enrolment and aging buildings, and to ensure that Nova Scotia graduates are literate.

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Part of the plan focuses on "virtual schools," which allow a small cluster of students in a rural area increased choices in curriculum. For example, three students in a rural community could take an art or advanced chemistry course – something that wouldn't be available to them in their own school.

The plan also looks at other uses for empty spaces in schools. Ms. Jennex notes that an elementary school in the south shore community of Hubbards has used vacant space to open a daycare. The former teacher says she is being vigilant that the combination of cuts and declining enrolment do not affect what is happening in the classroom – 85 per cent of the budget is for the students.

There is hope, however, that the new $25-billion shipbuilding contract for Halifax Shipyard will have a tremendous impact on the province and help turn those aging-population numbers in the other direction.

"I have a sense of optimism," Ms. Jennex says, "… that when the economy is improving people are more comfortable with starting families. But when people are uncomfortable and the economy is precarious, people think twice about having the second and third child."

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