A 10-kilometre stretch of Hamilton’s inner city.
One public high school.
That’s the option in front of Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board trustees Wednesday in the first of three meetings to decide the fate of 15 local secondary schools.
Seven of them — Delta, Parkview, Sir John A. Macdonald, Sherwood, Hill Park, Mountain and Parkside — are candidates for closure in an effort to cut costs and consolidate. Collectively, Hamilton high schools have 3,780 surplus spaces.
The decisions will be painful and the effects far-reaching for students, educators and the broader community.
But in the core, where board staff is calling for the most dramatic changes, the reverberations will be especially strong.
The plan is to close down Delta, Parkview and Sir John A. Macdonald in June 2015 in order to reduce empty seats and help fund a new $41.5-million high school. Between the three schools, enrolment falls 1,371 students short of capacity and they need an estimated $34 million in repairs.
Staff’s aim, meanwhile, is to reduce operational costs — a must in the wake of the province’s recent decision to slash funding for underutilized schools — while providing students with a state-of-the-art facility and modern programs.
The upshot is the project would also be a massive investment in a part of the city that is traditionally underserved — a part of the city where, on average, nearly 29 per cent of people under 18 live below the low-income cut-off, according to Statistics Canada census data. In Ancaster, by contrast, 3.5 per cent of children fall under that line.
Still, there are concerns around the proposed closures, including the possibility the Ministry of Education won’t fund the project. In the past 10 years, the board has benefitted from $211 million for capital fixes and new schools. But, with the McGuinty government committed to trimming the deficit, it’s not clear how the board will fare when it comes to future funding.
The province has set aside $350 million to be shared among all Ontario school boards for consolidation projects over the next three years.
If no money is available, staff plans to bring together students from the three schools at Sir John A. Macdonald, at the corner of Bay and York streets. Such a move would leave what Hamilton’s director of neighbourhood development strategies Paul Johnson refers to as an “education desert.”
“It is a challenge from a neighbourhood perspective,” Johnson says. “You’re talking about areas that are struggling to attract the type of investment that we want in terms of people living there and a mix of folks living there.”
The area he’s talking about runs from roughly Queen Street to Kenilworth Avenue, between the harbour and escarpment, and takes in the Delta and Sir John A. Macdonald catchment areas. Parkview, with its unique alternative learning program, draws students from across the entire lower city.
That stretch is also pockmarked with poor educational outcomes — a socioeconomic factor that has been shown to be tightly linked to low income and high rates of poverty.
In the lower city, for instance, the high school dropout rate is nearly 108 for every 1,000 students, Statistics Canada census data shows. In Ancaster, it’s 35.
Students at Delta and Sir John A. Macdonald also tend to fare relatively poorly on standardized tests. On the most recent EQAO results, for example, 19 per cent of Sir John A. Macdonald students met or exceeded the provincial standard in applied math. In academic math, 51 per cent of students were at or above the line. The provincial average for applied and academic math was 42 and 83 per cent, respectively, while the board average was 34 and 79 per cent.
There’s a possibility, Johnson admits, consolidating students in a single facility could intensify those effects.
The growing distance for students to get to class is one factor. In the case of the proposed high school, which is planned for a central location between Delta and Sir John A. Macdonald, that could mean an almost 11-kilometre round trip for students who live near Barton and Kenilworth if the board doesn’t redraw the school boundaries.
It’s worth noting that Sir Winston Churchill is less than three kilometres from that same neighbourhood. But since it is already overcapacity — 1,191 students in 1,098 spaces, according to last year’s enrolment figures — it’s not clear if trustees would be eager to pack in even more. At the opposite end of the core, Westdale is likewise full, with 1,594 students in 1,521 spaces.
Johnson sees it as a barrier.
“We hear through schools that it’s a challenge to have people travel long distances,” he says. Simply put, if it’s hard to get to class, kids are less likely to show up.
The effects also extend to participation in extracurricular activities and overall engagement with the school community.
For students, it becomes a question of, “‘I’m a long, long way away, how do I get there and back, and how do I participate in school life?’
“I would worry that we could be setting ourselves up for challenge after challenge,” Johnson says.
For York University geography professor Ranu Basu, it adds up to a slow process of exclusion.
“Who does it affect the most?” says Basu, whose research focuses on school closures. “Obviously people who don’t have cars or who don’t have access, who maybe are working a couple of jobs.”
They’re the same people who tend to be disengaged from the school closure process in general, she adds.
In the case of Hamilton’s secondary school accommodation review, her observation holds up.
In the lower city, just four people showed up to speak at a final public forum on closures, where the board representatives outnumbered the audience. At a similar meeting for Mountain schools, there were 24 speakers while the one for schools in the west end drew 19.
“The greatest level of engagement — and certainly the most sophisticated advocacy — came from places that are relatively affluent and engaged school communities. And that’s not a bad thing,” explains Hamilton Community Foundation CEO Terry Cooke. “But what it tends to do is further skew the balance and the focus away from neighbourhoods that really need some attention and really need a change in priority and policy.”
One way for the board to level the playing field is to consider a model that promotes mixed-income schools, Cooke adds. That means reviewing school boundaries, transportation policies and putting the most attractive programs in places that historically haven’t hosted them.
“We need to make conscious choices about doing things that will mitigate and help to overcome the challenges of concentrated poverty in our inner- city schools,” he says. “This is a chance for the public school board in Hamilton to be a national leader and to do something that is quite bold and quite innovative, and that I think can have enormous potential for positive outcomes.”