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Vanishing Schools, Threatened Communities: The Contested Schoolhouses in Maritime Canada, 1850-2010

Vanishing Schools, Threatened Communities: The Contested Schoolhouses in Maritime Canada, 1850-2010

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Published by Fernwood Publishing
Traditional schoolhouses and neighbourhood schools are disappearing at an alarming rate, making way for huge schools that serve multiple communities and adhere to the logic of modernization, centralization, and uniformity. In Vanishing Schools, Threatened Communities, Paul W. Bennett explores the phenomenon of school closures, focusing on the little known and contentious history of public schooling in Maritime Canada from 1850 until the present. In a lively and stimulating narrative, Bennett examines the rise of common schooling from one-room schoolhouses that encouraged local democratic control through to the “super sized” schools governed by a vast bureaucracy that silences public participation. Local “save our schools” movements do arise in cities, towns, and villages throughout the Maritimes but rarely succeed in slowing the unrelenting march of “progress.” Bennett contends that, in both urban and rural Maritime Canada, closing schools rips out a social anchor vital to community survival and imperils the democratic ideals that originally guided the public school system. He shows that education is increasingly dominated by a bureaucratic state where the “bigger is better” ideology and an impersonal, unresponsive organizational apparatus drive the entire system. The book closes with a clarion call to completely reinvent public education to better serve the needs of our children and our communities.
Traditional schoolhouses and neighbourhood schools are disappearing at an alarming rate, making way for huge schools that serve multiple communities and adhere to the logic of modernization, centralization, and uniformity. In Vanishing Schools, Threatened Communities, Paul W. Bennett explores the phenomenon of school closures, focusing on the little known and contentious history of public schooling in Maritime Canada from 1850 until the present. In a lively and stimulating narrative, Bennett examines the rise of common schooling from one-room schoolhouses that encouraged local democratic control through to the “super sized” schools governed by a vast bureaucracy that silences public participation. Local “save our schools” movements do arise in cities, towns, and villages throughout the Maritimes but rarely succeed in slowing the unrelenting march of “progress.” Bennett contends that, in both urban and rural Maritime Canada, closing schools rips out a social anchor vital to community survival and imperils the democratic ideals that originally guided the public school system. He shows that education is increasingly dominated by a bureaucratic state where the “bigger is better” ideology and an impersonal, unresponsive organizational apparatus drive the entire system. The book closes with a clarion call to completely reinvent public education to better serve the needs of our children and our communities.

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Published by: Fernwood Publishing on Mar 08, 2011
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04/27/2011

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1
Introduc 
     
 ion 
C
ast aside as mere relics of a bygone era, historic schoolhouses stand assilent reminders of a post-modern twenty-
rst-century society thatcelebrates economic progress, worships gleaming glass-enclosed structures,and all too often ignores the lessons of the past.
 
inking about bygoneschoolhouses conjures up images of “little white schoolhouses” or the stately “palace schools” of Victorian and Edwardian Canada. Most remaining oldschoolhouses are endangered, at the mercy of cost-conscious, modernizingschool boards, left abandoned and now falling apart, or dependent upon thegenerosity of new owners with deep pockets and a genuine commitment tohistorical preservation. A new bureaucratic order is emerging where “evenbigger is better” when it comes to educating children, and school closuresthreaten the very existence of Maritime communities — from busy urbanneighbourhoods to bucolic country villages.Traditional schoolhouses all over the Maritimes have disappeared atan alarming rate. Since the early 1900s, school closures, abandonment, anddemolition have come in waves, usually driven by the allure of social andeconomic progress. More recently, our local neighbourhood schools havecome under siege in the latest wave aimed at replacing older, deterioratingbuildings with “big box” school facilities. In the United States, the National Trust for Heritage Preservation responded in June 2000 by adding historicneighbourhood schools to its annual list of “America’s eleven most endangeredhistoric places.” Across Maritime Canada, we are bearing silent witness tothe relentless destruction of our remaining heritage of these architecturaltreasures and the abandonment of small, community schools.Canada’s turn-of-the-twentieth-century boom period saw the coun-try’s population mushroom from 5.3 million in 1901 to about 9 millionin 1926.
 
e number of schools in the Maritimes and elsewhere grew ata phenomenal rate. Compulsory school attendance ensured that the vastmajority of students stayed in school for much longer than had the previ-ous generation.
 
e demand for local schools was such that the one-roomschoolhouse became a ubiquitous public building on the rural Maritimelandscape. Many of the tiny schoolhouses in use throughout the Second World War were rendered physically or functionally obsolete, or both, by the early 1950s. Some of the oldest wooden buildings, from the late 1800s,needed either substantial repair or replacement. With mechanization camefarm consolidation and abandonment, causing many rural families to driftinto towns and cities, virtually emptying many rural schools. School board
 
Vanishing Schools,
 
reatened Communities
2
consolidation and the expansion of busing and specialized support servicesled to larger, more centralized district schools. Elementary and high schoolstudents were separated in small towns, villages, and farming areas, creatingthe need for even larger central or regional secondary schools.School enrolment surged after the Second World War, particularly inthe growing dormitory suburbs of Halifax, Saint John, Fredericton, andCharlottetown. Modern one-level “egg crate” functional design schools ex-perienced their heyday in the 1950s as overstretched school boards sought toaccommodate the bulging student enrolments. In the late 1970s and 1980s,educational progressives promoted the so-called “open concept” plan featuringclassrooms without walls and more
exible use public spaces. More recently,newly constructed “big box” schools sought to mimic dominant trends in the workplace. Post-modern architecture, “cineplex” student lounge areas, andcomputer-equipped “pods” of classrooms came into vogue. Cost consciousschool boards in the 1990s embraced “no frills” architecture and rigidly adhered to new regulations, in bureaucratic compliance with air quality andecological concerns. In the modernizers’ universe, heritage schools were seenas dinosaurs and just another obstacle to “progress.”“Save our schools” movements have periodically 
ared up in MaritimeCanada but generally remain con
ned to local community 
ghts.
 
roughoutthe Maritimes, ordinary parents and citizens have rallied to save the lastremaining local schoolhouses. Grassroots groups from Nova Scotia’s StraitRegion and South End Halifax to hamlets in

’s Eastern District havearisen to alert the public to the threat to their prized local schools. Yet, oneat a time, historic schoolhouses are closing and being demolished or repur-posed by school boards committed to centralization, modernization, anduniformity in the public school system. In the relentless march of progress,small community schools are deemed disposable in pursuit of an e
cient,cost e
 
ective, “one size
ts all” school system. Within a generation, thesesmall schoolhouses will likely vanish before our eyes in cities, towns, and villages in a post-modernist, bureaucratic education world where “bigger isbetter” and citizens are further removed from control of the schools.Public education has drifted o
 
course in Maritime Canada.
Vanishing Schools,
reatened Communities
seeks to raise historical consciousness.Surveying the contested history of public schooling makes us more aware of the democratic foundations of our state school system. We begin to recognizehow far removed we have become from the lofty ideals of public school-ing. What really mattered, right from the beginning, was small community schools, good teaching, educating for character, and advancing a democraticsociety. If the past is any guide, the pendulum does swing in the peculiar world of Maritime education.
 
e schoolhouse remains unsettled becauseevery generation seeks to reinvent public education. In the twenty-
rstcentury, returning to
rst principles might be a good place to start.

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