East Credit Catholic schools’ declining enrollment

Gently, but steadily, each year during this century, enrollment in the Catholic elementary schools east of the Credit River, south of the 401, north of the 403, and west of Mavis has fallen.

Excellent schools, well-maintained, with dedicated teachers and skilled administrators operate at half to two-thirds their student capacity. It’s an issue. A school doesn’t pay two-thirds of a principal’s salary and benefits, or a librarian’s, or a caretaker’s. The school doesn’t consume two-thirds of the electricity and gas it would at full capacity, or two-thirds of its other operating expenses.

The Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board looked at reliable enrollment projections forecasting continued declines into the 2020s. It has started a process called a Pupil Accommodation Review.

Of Ontario’s 72 school boards, only five have growing enrollment. None of these five are Catholic boards. This means that the process of reviewing pupil enrollment, and matching it to schools has taken place in Ontario for years. The Dufferin-Peel Board and its affected school communities have a wealth of experience on which to draw as they proceed.

At the starting point

Just to get a Pupil Accommodation Review under way, a board needs to do some substantive analysis work, and begin a lengthy and extensive process of consultation with parents and families in the areas affected by low enrollment. The schools that make up the East Credit Mississauga Review area are:

  • Our Lady of Good Voyage;
  • St. Bernadette;
  • St. Dunstan;
  • St. Gertrude;
  • St. Gregory;
  • St. Herbert;
  • St. Raymond;
  • St. Valentine.

The first, reflexive thought among families where students attend schools subject to a review is, “OMG, our school is gonna close!” That was certainly on the lips of the parents I met at the first of the Dufferin-Peel Board’s public consultation meetings, held on January 20 at St. Joseph’s Secondary School. A few hundred people showed up to look over the work the Board had done to start the review process.

The Ontario Ministry of Education requires boards conducting a Pupil Accommodation Review to have done some deep quantitative analysis, and to have developed a number of possible scenarios, including one suggested scenario. The alternative would be to start a process with little idea of where you are, or where you are going, an exercise that would quickly collapse into acrimony, chaos, indecision or all of the foregoing

As I said to the many parents who spoke with me, this work just got a process started. The opening scenarios or recommendations don’t represent an immutable path to a predetermined decision. Now the hard work starts. The school communities need to hear from the Board just what the numbers say. The Board needs to hear from the parents and affected communities just what options they might be open to considering.

School board budgets are linked to enrollment. Growing boards receive more funds. Boards with declining enrollment get less. The range of solutions must all fit within the Dufferin-Peel Board’s projected budget.

This is not the first such accommodation review conducted in western Mississauga. In the last decade, the Peel District School Board, one of the five growing school boards in Ontario, faced such an issue in Streetsville. That Pupil Accommodation Review was then, and remains today, a case study in how to get it right. By the time of the review’s conclusion, just about everybody had arrived at a consensus of what to do with the 1940s-era Russell Langmaid School (transferred to the City of Mississauga to become a cadet centre, with part of it leased to a private school). The East Credit area of the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board is a larger-scale review, affecting more schools that are much newer than was Russell Langmaid in the 2000s. The lessons to be learned, however, are in the forging of a community consensus among concerned families who, in the end, grasped the reality of the issue and acted responsibly and with wisdom and foresight.

Listening, vision and imagination

At St. Joseph’s Secondary on the cold evening of January 20th, the Dufferin-Peel Board meticulously and accurately touched every base required to get the accommodation review process started. Now comes the critical part: the board must listen to its school communities in a meaningful way, and work with those communities to be as imaginative and forward-looking as the community was in Streetsville years ago. The parents and school community must listen to the board to grasp the parameters of what is possible, and learn how to fit a proposed solution within the Dufferin-Peel’s projected budget, through the Grants for Student Needs and other funding available to the Dufferin-Peel Catholic board from the Province.

Then starts the interesting part of a Pupil Accommodation Review. Everyone needs to set aside preconceived plans and emotion, and find a middle ground on which to meet and think cooperatively. Parents from the different schools need to meet together, involve their Catholic Trustee, share information, and expand the range of what is possible and feasible to build support for what should be an emerging consensus.

  • What options for the use of the different school buildings, that may be possible and workable, are available beyond those initially proposed by the Board’s staff?
  • Are there basic assumptions made by the Board, by the schools, or by the families affected that should be looked at in the light of the reality facing the East Credit region?
  • Can, or should, the different school buildings be shared to allow for other uses at the same time as the buildings are used to deliver Catholic education?
  • Who else, within the spectrum of those entities providing services to the community, needs or would be interested in some, or all, of the space within the affected schools, and how might such an arrangement work if implemented? What challenges would affect the workability of any such proposal?

The accommodation review process takes time and effort. The quality of what comes out at its end depends directly on the quality of effort that went into the process after the accommodation review process starts.

Click one of the social media icons below, and forward this article to those you know who may be interested in or affected by the Dufferin-Peel Pupil Accommodation Review.