I'm Had as Mell, Dear Minister Casey


Last week it was announced 50 schools in NS would receive funding for repairs. River John, still open, last I checked, is NOT on that list.  

Maitland and Wentworth weren't either. Three schools caught smack dab in the middle of a lot of small p and big P politics. I really have had my eyes opened—how so many well-meaning adults can't connect the dots—support communities and small schools or destroy them. Thinking outside the box makes wonderful things happen. It is called use of the imagination.

Dear Minister Casey: 

I am writing to ask you to exempt River John Consolidated School from threat of closure and review the actions of the CCRSB Board with regards to the treatment of River John School. The process has been unfair at best, incompetent to the point of scandalous and worse. The Board is broken. The children and teachers in this small community want their small school open and the children to stay in this community. They have been worn down by years of dismissiveness by the board and a faulty review process. You have requested the Board give a year's extension as they wait for parameters so the community can propose a new vision for the school.  But if the fate of this school has already been decided—as no funding for much needed repairs seems to suggest—what is the point of the year? 

Not all small schools should stay open, I understand this, but River John could be an exception for many justifiable reasons and not only because it has been treated unjustly. I love Tatamagouche and am happy for the new P-12 school and I know that money has nothing to do with River John. I love River John—smaller and different, but the children in River John deserve a school too.They will be dispersed to many schools if their school shuts down.    

I voted Liberal this past election because I thought River John might have a chance given the platform on Education. I know you care. I know the job is tough. There are 73 children and numbers climbing again—and a community you have the power to help thrive by supporting this school's chances of staying open.                                          

Enclosed is the letter I wrote to members of the CCRSB today. Truly, I don't know who to write to plead River John's case—the red tape, the systems, the politics. It seems as if common sense has left the planet and we are losing sight of who we care about most: the children.

Dear Ms. Thompson, Members of the CCRSB: 

I am writing as a grandmother, a mother, a citizen of Nova Scotia, a resident of River John, and an educator for the past thirty years. I’ve been reading to children and teaching teachers and students in libraries, schools and festivals around the globe.

Last week, I spent a few days as a visiting author in rural Newfoundland, in small schools working with students and giving a daylong workshop to teachers on creativity, writing and joy in learning. As always, it was amazing because committed teachers are amazing and children love learning where they live and when they are engaged. I was brought in and paid through an outreach program, part of the Winterset Literary Festival,  a festival much like the Read By the Sea Festival, held in River John every year.   

I found out that enrollment in some of these schools was smaller than in Wentworth or Maitland and River John. I found out that there is unused square footage in many schools.

In other words—excess space and small/declining enrollment were not valid reasons to close schools. The sustainability of rural communities was taken into account and voices of community members mattered.  

Newfoundland is not Nova Scotia, but we could learn some valuable lessons from our neighbours in Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island when it came to supporting our small communities and their schools. 

Yesterday, I spent the day in River John School like I did last week in Newfoundland. I saw the worm farm, the salmon farm, the space tomato plants! They are growing those for inclusion in the salsa garden. I also saw the sprouting window greenhouses. They completely connected literature to learning. They dressed up as dragons, made masks, sang me songs about dragons. We ate nutritious snacks, but had our cake and ate it too. I learned that baby ducks had come to the school the day before. I saw children treat each other with respect and yes, love—and teachers who loved their students. A school like a family. Not perfect, but like a healthy family RJCS provides a solid foundation and vibrant environment in which children can learn and grow. I saw older students taking care of younger students.

This year, I’ve seen their Heritage Fair and was there for the celebration of Flag Day. This is a school and learning environment I wish for every child in our province.

It is beyond my comprehension how River John came under review to begin with. From what I understand there was strong direction to close it by certain members. It appears some at CCRSB made a decision long ago that the doors of River John Consolidated School would be closed—a forgone perhaps non-negotiable conclusion? (I am realizing more and more that  small P and capital P politics can create havoc and cause harm.) The result? Closed minds, stalling tactics that question due diligence and no significant funds forthcoming to help this school help themselves. The result? A review under a faulty review process, a deadline and challenge—“Show us how you can justify your existence and we might let you stay open.” What power in the hands of so few.

My first of many questions is this:

When is the last time you visited River John School and watched them in action? Did you know they have a gym, cafeteria, woodworking shop, kitchen, and great grounds around the school?  Yes, it’s middle aged, but the bones are good and refurbishing costs can be figured out if there are creative, open-minded thinkers on your board. If there is a will.

Tonight, RJCS is having their Spring Fling. It runs from six to eight. It’s Friday night, a nice drive if you have nothing better to do. Certainly, from our point of view, you have nothing more important to do as elected members. Stay in touch with reality not just policy. Perhaps, you could invite your superintendent. Like your superintendent, my grandfather was a teacher in Parrsboro. My father used to tell a story about my grandfather bringing a student home from school one day because he'd had an accident. Of the embarrassing kind. So my grandfather ran a bath and my grandmother,also a teacher, but home with babies at the time, helped the boy, gave him some of my father's clothes and a hot lunch and off they went back to school. The point? Students come first. It's not always -hardly ever---about convenience. Just doing the right thing when it is called for.

I feel lucky to have Vivian Farrell as our member. She attends our school functions regularly but she is only one person. I feel she cares about our community and its students. And fairness. But we want all of you to be open minded and supportive.

I know you all want to vote on June 11th as well-informed members. Unless you are genuinely interested in the doors staying open in River John, extending the deadline a year will be an exercise in futility for all of us. Please lobby the Department of Education on our behalf and ask that we be removed from threat of closure and work with us pro-actively to help the vision of re-imagined RJCS as an educational/ geographic community –based learning hub become a reality.

This is beyond partisan politics at all levels. This is about getting underneath all ego-driven agendas and semantics and petty grievances and doing the right and fair thing for the children in River John. 

Dr. Sheree Fitch B.A. M.A
Member of the River John Support our School Committee

Minister Casey, thank you for asking for the year extension but I truly wonder if this is enough to ask of this board. Please ask them to lift the closure or at least review River John under the new Review process based on the Fowler Report. It would not be a "retroactive" action. Here is why: 

My husband made a wonderful analogy the other day. If someone was sentenced to death based on faulty evidence and on death row waiting—when it came to light the evidence was revealed as inaccurate or flawed, they would not be put to death, but have a new trial or be set free. You cannot bring the dead back to life (schools already closed-with doors shut—that would be retroactive) but you can apply fairness to those of us still on chopping block because of that faulty review process.

Our doors are not closed—in that gap—we were given a chance to create a solution and you are given a chance to give us a new review. Or better yet, set us free from closure once and for all and help us create our vibrant community educational centre.

Dr. Sheree Fitch B.A. M.A.