Book Examines Loss of Traditional Schoolhouses for ‘Big Box’ Institutions

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

By Paul W. Bennett  

The May 4 launch of Paul Bennett’s new book, ‘Vanishing Schools, Threatened Communities,’ came on the eve of an important announcement. Ben Levin’s review of the province’s public education system was officially unveiled the next day. Levin’s many recommendations included cutting the number of teaching assistants and school closures to deal with declining enrollment. The timing couldn’t have been better for Bennett. The publisher (Fernwood Publishing) describes ‘Vanishing Schools’ as a look at how traditional schoolhouses and neighbourhood schools are rapidly disappearing in exchange for “big box” schools. Although he initially intended to write about the impact of school closures nationwide, Bennett quickly realized very little had been written about the impact this has had on the Maritimes.

With the exception of one PEI educator who wrote in the late 1960s and a New Brunswick PhD thesis dating back to the 1970s, Maritime-based research material was spartan at best so Bennett focused his efforts here. “When I met with Errol Sharpe (Fernwood’s co-publisher), he said he liked the concept but half the equation was missing,” Bennett recalled. “I had the schools, but what about the communities?” That comment shifted his focus, and Bennett began looking at the impact school closures had on individual communities. His research was far reaching, and the result is a history of “the contested schoolhouse in Maritime Canada” stretching from 1850 to 2010. “I had to write the history and the background. What emerges is a full history of education in the Maritime provinces,” he explained. “It was a huge undertaking.” While the one-room schoolhouse of past generations was an integral part of the community and encouraged student and parental participation, Bennett believes the bureaucracy governing today’s “super-sized” schools is detrimental to the community and silences public participation. He points to a school superintendent who in 1880 warned that although the education system began as education for all, it was becoming education good enough for all. Bennett follows the shifting architectural styles of schools. From the one room schoolhouse to the garden-variety one level school, the rise of the “big box” elementary school, change wasn’t always progress. He describes the “shopping mall” high schools of the 1980s and works his way to Citadel High, which he describes as “airport terminal high.” “The changes in architecture reflect the priorities of the system, from the beginnings of strictly teachers and pupils with parents directly involved at all levels to the centralized, bureaucratized system where the public has little or nothing to do with the school,” he said. Bennett was pleased that Levin’s report released last week reflected his argument that the system does not exist for its staff, but for students and families. Despite his concerns, Bennett does have hope for the future. He believes that society is now recognizing the need to return to the principles that formed the public education system. “What really mattered right from the beginning were small community schools, good teaching and teaching for character,” he said. “In the 21st century returning to these principles is a good place to start.” ‘Vanishing Schools, Threatened Communities’ is available at independent and chain bookstores throughout HRM.-Yves Dentremont, Halifax News Net

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