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Re-schooled 

Cancelling Four-Plus by the Halifax Regional School Board is a decision a four-year-old wouldn't make

Oh. Now I get it.

This is what it’s like to be the parent of a school-aged child.

Which is to say, worn to the nub by the blind machinations of the Department of Education and the Halifax Regional School Board.

This morning I could be hanging out with my daughter. It’s a PD day and she’s got a classroom set up in her bedroom, dolls and stuffed animals on chairs facing a blackboard, where she’s leading a lesson on what to do when you see someone being bullied (“AlweyS Be carinG,” in case you were wondering).

I’ve been invited in several times. Except I’ve been stuck in my office on the phone---bounced from the school board to the Department of Education and back again through five dissatisfying discussions with five disappointing bureaucrats. And here’s the kicker---my head-hitting-a-brick-wall calls have been in service of untangling a mess wholly unrelated to the horrifying prospect that my daughter’s school---Joseph Howe Elementary on Maynard Street---will close, if consultants have their druthers. The proposal to sharpen the axe for Joe Howe and three other schools on the peninsula will be sent to the one-man Halifax Regional School Board, Howard Windsor, for a yes-or-no ruling by the end of March.

But, see, I’ve been on the horn trying to figure out the deal with September school registration for my younger spawn, who’s nearly four. It’s my third slog through voice-mail and “Uh, let me see if I can get that information...” this week.

See, the board has without notice or reason---and apparently without any perceived obligation to account for itself, because I can’t get a goddamn straight answer no matter whether I try my Nice Mom voice or my I-Am-Gonna-Kick-Your-Ass Mom voice---indefinitely put on hold registration for the Four-Plus program.

I know you’ve heard a lot lately about the cancellation of the province’s pre-primary pilot program. Four-Plus is different. (It’s OK if you didn’t know that. Most people don’t. And, in fact, one person dodging my pointed questions at the School Board this morning didn’t even know they were two separate entities.) So let me recap: Four-Plus---in seven schools for the past 20-odd years---is not the same program as pre-primary---in 19 schools only since 2005. (Though there is one way these programs are the same---they both give kids an immeasurable leg-up in their school careers. I’ve had one little ass-kicker come out of Four-Plus raring to head into primary, setting up science labs in the kitchen all summer and writing her own word flash cards to teach her little sister to read.)

“They may be cancelling the program,” one bureau-robot let slip on the phone this morning.

“When will parents know?”

“We’ll let people know through the website at a later date.”

“Can you give me any more information?”

“Sorry, no.”

And that’s business as usual, really.

See, parents matter very little in this system. Sure, the board and the Department of Education purport to listen to parents by holding “Imagine Our Schools” get-togethers and other meetings that sound like they’ve been named by the writers of Coke commercials. (By the way, teachers and principals only have it worse. They are the foot soldiers in this war to educate in the face of constant looming dangers like school closures and budget shortfalls and gee-maybe-we’ll-cancel-this threats. Yet educators get scant chance to share their wisdom and can’t say boo in public about the boneheaded decisions of their employers. The Board could tell them to turn off the lights in the gym during phys. ed to save power and their only recourse would be to give a strained smile and flick the switch.)

I admit it. I didn’t attend the "Imagine Our Schools" meetings. Here’s why: I will spend hours volunteering at the school. Need pennies for a penny parade? Just let me go scrounge in the sofa. It would be swell if some parents could chaperone the choir on its across-town trip? Just let me book off the time. Need a volunteer for the water-carrying game at the year-end Fun Day? Just let me grab a change of clothes.

But ask me to take time out of my kids' lives---when I could be sitting in on a bedroom-blackboard lesson on bullying or showing them how to make a letter "S" go the right way---so I can sit around a table and fill in surveys about how I Imagine our Schools?

Forget it.

Because I’m Imagining Our Schools, to borrow a now-angering slogan, will be run by people who care about kids and understand at least as well as I do---after all, they’re in the system; I’m just some slack-ass hipster mommy---what schools mean and how they matter.

Now that I write it, it seems like a joke. I trusted in the understanding of a gang of people who appear to have been brought in by Department of Education senior staff to (yet again) pit schools against one another in some kind of cruel version of educational American Gladiators. I AM A FOOL.

Look, I know there are no easy answers when it comes to public money. I grasp the concept that choices have to be made. But I just don’t buy that lame excuse for explaining away the killing of a good school.

I’ve heard it suggested that instead of cleaning and gutting schools that are currently underused---which Joseph Howe is, comparing capacity versus enrolment---we could lower class sizes and wait for the anticipated peninsula population boost, thus keeping the schools alive and temporarily boosting student-teacher ratios. We could open our schools to other community organizations---seniors, artists, religious zealots; rent it out to a bloody doggie day care for all I care. My point is: there are crayon boxes full of lively solutions.

What will it take to cultivate those changes? It will mean that the folks behind Imagine Our Schools, the people who, on their program’s website, have promised to look for ways to “best meet the future educational needs of our students” understand the role of schools in our communities. It will take them digesting the idea that schools are about more than blunt affordability.

Schools are central to the fabric of communities.

Schools are where neighbourhoods live. I have learned more about my community and the people in it over the past two years that I’ve been walking back and forth from my daughter’s school than I did in my previous six years in the neighbourhood.

Schools are where everyone is on an equal footing---poor, rich, black, white, old, young, healthy, sick, angry, bubbly; they are where community members really work together.

For students, the school is the centre of the universe.

Shifting kids around unties their community. It’s like an earthquake---not everything comes out intact. And that’s a shame when things were working well to begin with, as they are in the case of my daughter’s school, Joseph Howe.

Can new school-based communities flourish? Of course. Children are adaptable. But here’s an example of something that won’t likely follow my daughter if her small, wonderful, close-knit school is merged with another school and the student population goes from just over 100 to (this is a real, proposed number) over 700: her name.

Everyone knows everyone else’s name at my daughter’s school---administrators, teachers, students. That matters, because the principal comes out at the lunch bell and smiles and holds the door for the departing students and says goodbye to them by name. That matters, because the teachers are in tune with the students and their moods and can talk to them when they see a problem or congratulate them on getting a literacy bracelet for reading If You Give a Moose a Muffin all the way through without stopping.

That matters because having a name is having a place. And having a place is having something to connect to. It’s having a reason to feel good. To smile. To excel.

Having a name gives students a footing---in their school, their community and beyond. It is a central piece in the puzzle of developing strong, smart, responsible, connected kids who, for one thing, know what to do when they see someone---or some community---getting bullied.

“AlweyS Be carinG?”

Exactly.

Perhaps my daughter should be giving a lesson to the educational powers-that-be.

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