Combining Elementary and Secondary in One School

Beginning in 1957, my entire five-year high school career was spent at one suburban Toronto school. Downsview Collegiate Institute had just been built, at a time when elementary and secondary schools could hardly be built fast enough to keep up with that huge demographic wave, the baby boom generation. I, and others of my age, were part of an initial wave of boomers, born or conceived just before our newly recruited father/soldiers went overseas to an uncertain future. The actual post-war wave was even bigger.

Downsview Collegiate was state of the art when it was built. It had vocational shops galore, a huge auditorium/theatre for special events, art and music rooms, and an Olympic-size swimming pool. It had lots of room to grow, and so it did. It had about 1,000 students when I was there. The last time I looked in the mid-1970s the school was much bigger and probably had twice as many students.

By that time Downsview, a suburb in northwest Toronto, had itself grown a lot with the help of a steady influx of new immigrants from many different countries. As a result, an area that was predominantly white when I lived there had become obviously very multicultural.

No doubt there’s more than one reason why school enrolments in rural Ontario, including Grey-Bruce, have been steadily falling in recent years and continue to fall. Economic issues, including the loss and decline in the fortunes of traditional local industries means lost jobs in place like Chesley and Durham, and other small towns in this area. But the big fact of life for schools is demographic. The baby boom phenomenon and rising school enrolments that led to the construction of new elementary and secondary schools decades ago is long gone from that stage. Now talk is all about how the Canadian health care system will cope with the demands of an aging population. Meanwhile, for-profit retirement home operators are looking forward to boom times. That’s if the boomers can afford several thousand dollars a month for room and board, as they worry about their mutual funds riding the daily stock market roller coaster, more often down these days. But that too is another story.

The baby boom generation was, and to some extent still is, a North American economic trend setter and engine. But increasingly immigration, especially from many different countries and cultures, has kept the Canadian economic momentum going along at a good pace – in housing, for example.

And I think it’s fair to say immigration has kept schools from closing in the large urban areas of southern Ontario. Indeed it’s a good thing all those schools and their educational opportunities were already there, thanks initially to the baby boom generation.

There always has been and probably always will be a downside to immigration. Each new wave of immigrants has some trouble adjusting, which is why they seek comfort in each other’s company and gather together in certain big city neighbourhoods. And they don’t always get a welcome reception from those already here. But I firmly belief the great diversity of people who have come to Canada in the last 50 years have helped make this country a much more prosperous, interesting, and socio-economically dynamic  place than it would have been otherwise.

With few exceptions it takes several generations for immigration to have its full impact outside the big urban areas. In the past 30 years I have seen a slow, but steady increase in the number of tourists coming to this area, especially the Bruce Peninsula, who are members of so-called visible minorities. That’s often the first step people take in a getting-top-know-you process that eventually leads to full-time residency and all the socio-economic benefits that brings. Had just a small fraction of the immigrants who came to places  like Toronto, London, Kitchener-Waterloo and Guelph come to Grey-Bruce and other parts of small-town rural Ontario we might not now be worrying about declining school enrolment and angsting over the loss of “community” schools in places like Chesley.

But they will come. And when they do, try to reach out, get to know them, make them feel welcome, encourage them to come back, or stay.

In the meantime, by all means let’s save as many local schools as we can, not just for the local communities we are now in this area, but for the sake of the communities we can be in the future.

It appears one good way to do that is by combining elementary grades with secondary in one school, as the Bluewater Public School Board decided to do this week in Chesley, as it did several years ago in Wiarton when a new combined school was built there.

But long before that even the Bruce Peninsula District School in Lion’s Head was proving just how good such a combined school can be. When I came to the Lion’s Head area more than 30 years ago and started reporting local news I never ceased to be impressed by how many gold medals students from that school collected at Canada-Wide science fairs year after year. And that with the second smallest secondary enrolment in the entire province.  The key was dedicated teachers, supportive parents and community, and, of course, students who wanted to learn and keep up the tradition of excellence.

Big is not always better, no matter how “state of the art.”

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2011.

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