Book Defends small schools on the Island

Vanishing Schools, Threatened Communities
The Contested Schoolhouse in Maritime Canada 1850–2010

By Paul W. Bennett  

The Eastern School Board’s contentious decision to close eight schools is prominently featured in Halifax author Paul Bennett’s recently published book, Vanishing schools, Threatened Communities: The contested Schoolhouse in Maritime Canada. Mr. Bennett’s background includes 34 years of working in the education system in Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia, including 20 years in administration. He retired as headmaster of the Halifax Grammar School in 2009 before establishing the Schoolhouse Consulting firm. He currently writes on education issues in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald.

Mr. Bennett said the project initially started as a book about school closures, but after doing a lot of background research on the issue, “it ended up being a full study on what I call the lies of the bureaucratic education state in the maritimes.”

He said the book is a history of education in the Maritimes beginning in the days of the one-room schoolhouse, and up to the modern school system and the changes that have taken place in that system, with the overall purpose to raise people’s historical consciousness and to defend rural community schools.

“Bureaucratization and consolidation is leading to uniformity and the crowding out of public participation in the school system,” Mr. Bennett said.

He said PEI’s education history is well represented in the book including reflections from Dr. Edward MacDonald of UPEI, as well as an overview of Premier Alex Campbell’s Comprehensive Plan that included school consolidations back in the 1960s. The history goes to the Eastern School District’s closure of eight schools back in 2009 and as recently as the infamous November 2010 Eastern School Board meeting which eventually led to Education Minister Doug Currie’s disbanding of the elected board, to be replaced by a single appointed trustee.

“It shows there is something really seriously dysfunctional there. The book makes a very strong case that local democracy in education is threatened. We need to stand up and fight to revitalize the school system.”

Mr. Bennett’s research includes stories from The Eastern Graphic and the book includes quotes from columns written by publisher Paul MacNeill on the actions of the province and the Eastern School Board.

Mr. Bennett interviewed Peter Llewellyn who was a major voice of opposition of the school closures. He said Mr. Llewellyn is an interesting figure who along with the PEI Rural alliance practiced a form of “radical populism” with the goal to return power to the people in the rural areas. He said the group’s efforts were “the last stand of rural community schools” in the Maritimes. He contrasts the Rural Alliance’s efforts with the Save the Community School effort currently taking place in Antigonish county, Nova Scotia.

“It’s not quite a radical (in Antigonish)_. They’ve (the school district) identified three or four schools at a time and try to pick them off. You’ve got more of a broader scale consolidation going on, so it’s more intense.”

Mr. Bennett will be signing copies at the indigo bookstore in Charlottetown Tuesday, May 24 from 2 to 4pm and will be at Beaconsfield’s Carriage House at 7pm.-David MacDonald, The Guardian Wednesday May 18, 2011.

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