Halifax-based educational consultant Paul W. Bennett's latest book is being officially launched this week. (Yvette d'Entremont)
The decline in rural populations and the demographic shift threatening the province's rural communities could be turned around with a new and sustainable model of public schooling.
That's what Halifax-based educational consultant Paul W. Bennett explores in his latest book, ‘The Last Stand: Communities and the Future of Rural Nova Scotia.'
The book is being launched this week, with the first HRM signing scheduled for Sept. 14 in Halifax.
Whether we live in rural or urban Nova Scotia, Bennett says we should all be gravely concerned by the looming crisis facing the province if we don't start transforming our small schools into what he says are best described as "vital community hubs."
"We want to transform schools into community hubs where the school will be a smaller portion of the facility, and will not occupy the whole facility. The planning for it starts long before a school closes," Bennett explains.
"People start asking what are the groups and/or enterprises in the community looking for space that would benefit from a co-location. A community hub needs an anchor tenant and that anchor tenant is the school board because without that what are your chances of having a successful community hub?"
This model has proven very successful in many other jurisdictions and, Bennett says, is needed to keep rural communities alive. He said initiatives that include early learning, community policing, seniors groups and small local enterprises are all examples of what would fit in a community hub.
"A community hub school starts from the premise that the school is a community asset the school board is managing for the time being," he explains. "When the time comes to close it, it goes back to the municipality so why do they (the school board) think they own it? It's not theirs, it is paid for by the taxpayer...A hub school is community-based education where there are partnerships."
Bennett says instead of building centralized, large, bureaucratic schools and shipping children on long bus trips out of their communities, we should be focusing on finding innovative and creative ways to enhance their educational opportunities close to home.
He also points to the cost savings by cutting down on transportation costs and collecting rent from community tenants using the schools.
"The demographic challenge is so grave and rural decline is so advanced that this is necessary," he says. "The argument of this book is that things are so severe we need to change how we are planning and developing schools."
So should every school be saved? Bennett says it's up to each community to determine that. They take the initiative, or don't, when it comes to finding appropriate tenants and turning the school into a community hub.
"If a community doesn't have the will or capacity to create a meaningful community hub, that school will close," he says. "If they are given two years to come up with a community hub plan and they can't do it, it is their decision... But many can and will. This is all about rural revitalization with schools and students as a focus."