Review in the Antigonish Casket

The Last Stand
Schools, Communities and the Future of Rural Nova Scotia

By Paul W. Bennett  

Rural revitalization in Nova Scotia, including what to do with rural schools dealing with declining enrollment, has been a hot button topic for the current provincial election campaign. The topic was covered in thorough detail Oct. 1 by author Paul Bennett during his hour and a half presentation at the People’s Place Library. Bennett gave an illustrated book talk at the library which served the dual purpose of also helping him launch his new book The Last Stand: Schools, Communities and the Future of Rural Nova Scotia. “I’ve been all around the province and I’m halfway through a 17-date tour of talks and signings that are taking me from one end of Nova Scotia to the other and then over to Georgetown P.E.I. [for the Georgetown Conference] on Thursday,” Bennett said following his presentation. Bennett said the book came out Aug. 31 but he didn’t receive his copies until Sept. 6. Since then, he has been busy with promotion. The book is described as a response to the “looming crisis with a new, more accountable, efficient and sustainable model of public schooling.” Further description evokes Bennett’s idea that it is time to “revitalize rural Nova Scotian communities by reversing the dominant trend toward centralized, bureaucratic school systems. As he argues, “schools must be transformed, once again, into vital community hubs. Suspending the divisive school review process will accomplish little unless it leads to building smaller community schools, supporting innovative local enterprises, modeling sustainable living practices and providing community-based education on a more human scale.” Bennett said the book came from a brief developed by he and others called Schools at the Centre: Revitalization Strategy for Rural Nova Scotia. The brief was presented to education minister Ramona Jennex May 15, 2012. “We’re talking about the Nova Scotia Small Schools Initiative and I’m talking about the public interest research group of listed [on inside title page of book] individuals,” Bennett said in talking about the others who contributed to the brief. “They were the original authors of the brief with me. I was the general editor and put the brief together but they each contributed. So that was the basis of this and we call ourselves the Public Interest Research Group.” Amongst the group is Randy Delorey, who was a leader in the attempt to save Rev. H. J. MacDonald School in Heatherton. “Heatherton is a case that is fundamental to what we’re all about on the Nova Scotia Small Schools Initiative because it’s the Heathertons of Nova Scotia we’re seeking to save,” Bennett said. “We would love to have had a community hub there. To have transformed the school into a community hub and continued to have an educational facility in that village … it’s all about the villages like Heatherton.” Bennett talked more about the ‘community hub’ concept. “That it, you transform the school into a broad, multi-use facility involving community groups and the school, essentially, becomes an anchor tenant in the school facility,” he said, noting projects such as that are being done in small schools in the rural communities of Maitland and River John. “Over time it gets transformed into more of a community activity centre with activities ranging from early learning, day care, through to seniors’ programs. Then other groups within the community play a role in the school and they contribute to it. The space is rented, so it’s self-perpetuating and does generate some income.” Bennett, founding director of Schoolhouse Consulting and an adjunct professor of education at St. Mary’s University, came to prominence for those battling to save rural schools following the publication of his book Vanishing Schools, Threatened Communities: The Contested Schoolhouse in Maritime Canada, 1850-2010. He notes The Last Stand is a sequel. “This is a continuation,” he said. “What happened was I did a history of school closures and education in the three Maritime Provinces from 1850 to 2010. Kate [Oland], Randy and everybody said ‘Paul, there has been so much that has happened since why don’t you update it. “I said, ‘well, we’ve done the brief, why don’t we tell the story of the brief and our efforts to reform this school system.’ So it’s kind of like a sequel.” The book is available at all major book dealers as well as independent book stores and can also be ordered online through book sellers and the publisher Fernwood Publishing. - Richard McKenzie for The Casket, 8 October 2013

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