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Students, alumni rally to save storied Peterborough school

Collin Chepeka is a student organizer trying to stop the closing of Peterborough Collegiate.

fred thornhill The Globe and Mail

It's one of the oldest schools in Canada, nestled in a historic building in downtown Peterborough that houses an interdisciplinary arts program. But in September, Peterborough Collegiate and Vocational School (PCVS) will shut its doors.

Board-wide enrolments are down, and trustees at the Kawartha Pine Ridge School Board singled out PCVS for closure as it is an old school with no playground. Parents and students have been mounting an intense campaign to keep the school open, saying uprooting students from PCVS is illogical and will hamper the popular arts program.

PCVS is at 90-per-cent enrolment capacity, but the board has already lost 1,000 students. Across the country, enrolments are down and boards are struggling to keep schools open while maintaining provincially mandated student-teacher ratios. In Peterborough, the board is shipping approximately 400 students in the arts program to a half-empty suburban school in September. Other students at PCVS can have the option of going to the same suburban school, or choose a closer school.

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"It just makes no sense," said Michael Saunders, a parent who sits on the Peterborough Needs PCVS committee. "Why would you close a school that is practically full and move all those students to another school? Doesn't it make more sense the other way around?"

Nobel Prize winner Lester B. Pearson, Supreme Court Justice Michael Moldaver and RIM CEO Jim Basillie have all walked as students in the hallways of the early 20th-century school. Some of the school's famous arts alumni, including Juno winner Serena Ryder and comedian Sean Cullen, have also thrown their support behind the Save PCVS campaign and will perform at a benefit concert on Feb. 26.

"PCVS totally changed my life and it would be such a shame to lose this school, which has so much history," Ms. Ryder said in an interview. "It's so fantastically beautiful and was built in 1908. I think the arts program will really lose something if it's moved to another school away from the downtown."

The specialized arts program gets students to think creatively in all their regular classes. English becomes a drama lesson sometimes where students enact some plays, gym includes a dance lesson and students also go on field trips, listen to guest lecturers and take specialized courses, such as fashion, ceramics and vocals.

In a bid to change the board's decision, students bused down in early December to Queen's Park to protest the closing of their school and have also walked out of classes en masse. "On Halloween, we all dressed up as ghosts to show the board that our school and downtown would become a ghost town if PCVS was gone," said Grade 10 student Collin Chepeka, the student organizer of Save PCVS.

Commuting would become a challenge for the arts students, Grade 11 student Mirka Loiselle complained. "I can get to the art galleries easily because PCVS is five minutes from downtown, but the other school is a 35-minute walk from downtown," Ms. Loiselle said.

Some students, like recent graduate Kate Macdonald, say the school fuelled her interest in the arts and kept her motivated. She and another grad, Janelle Blanchard, recorded a rendition of Neko Case's brooding Star Witness on a school staircase, as part of the Save PCVS campaign. That video has garnered more than 100,000 hits since it was posted in early December and elicited a positive tweet from the songwriter.

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"It's just a short video to raise attention and everyone who was involved is a former student of PCVS," Ms. Macdonald said. "It's a school that's really welcoming and we obviously don't want to see it gone."

The Save PCVS campaign says the decision to shut down the school was made too hastily, and the board didn't properly explore alternative partnerships with the Catholic school board or Trent University. Organizers have successfully petitioned the Ontario Ministry of Education to conduct a review of the closure process, and a facilitator will be appointed in January.

But the Kawartha Pine Ridge school board argues that PCVS is an old school with no playground, whereas the suburban schools are newer buildings and have plenty of green space.

Board chair Diane Lloyd said the decision to shut down was not made lightly. The board examined all four Peterborough schools together, including the downtown PCVS, and enrolment projections indicate the board will be 1,700 students below capacity in 2015.

"We have to make difficult decisions sometimes and I expect they [the school community]don't like the answer we gave them," Ms. Lloyd said.

Boards are required to consider several elements when evaluating school closures, including enrolments, access to playgrounds, travel time and the state of the building. The Ministry of Education's review will take two to four months. Even if the ministry finds problems with the board's decision-making process, it cannot overturn the decision and, at best, provides only recommendations for the trustees.

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