A tale of two schools

How one small town is divided by two secondary schools

Illustration: Students walking with chasm between them

Less than two kilometres separate St. Joseph’s Catholic High School and Renfrew Collegiate Institute but they are kept even further apart by over 100 years of history. According to Statistics Canada, the town of Renfrew, Ontario, has a population of 7,846. If you were to include the surrounding townships you could add several thousand to that total. Surely this is an adequate population to support a thriving secondary school, but does it justify two secondary schools?

St. Joseph’s Catholic High School (St. Joseph’s) was originally established in 1928 and most recently moved to a new facility in 1994. St. Joseph’s has a secondary student body of 380. Renfrew Collegiate Institute (RCI), with a population of 455 secondary students, was established in 1881. RCI continues to sit close to its original site and has had many additions and renovations over the past 130 years. During the post-war baby boom, RCI had more than 1,200 students while St. Joseph’s has never exceeded 500 students. As a result of provincial funding programs, both Renfrew County School Boards have recently moved elementary students into their secondary schools to fill empty classroom spaces. If a school is not being fully utilized, the Ministry of Education penalizes the school board by withholding funding. All of the secondary students in Renfrew could be easily accommodated in one building without resorting to housing elementary students and also avoiding penalties.

Funding is critical to the operation of any school. The majority of the funding comes from Grants for Student Needs (GSNs) and the majority of those funds are generated by enrolment. The more students you have in a school or board directly impacts the funding provided by the Ministry of Education. This year, every student at St. Joseph’s generated $13,048.24 while an RCI student generated $12,506.50 in funding. There is a difference of $541.74 because the Catholic board is considered “Rural and Remote” while the public board is not. Money that could be spent on programming and resources is then spent on advertising and competition to draw students to each school in order to generate more funding. A cross-town rivalry between the two schools in sporting competitions is great for the local paper to write about, but is it the best model for delivering public education?

The number of students in a building not only impacts the funds available to a school, it also impacts the courses a school can offer. More students in a school mean that more courses can be offered. Both Renfrew schools face a similar dilemma in that their enrolment limits the courses that can be offered and ultimately the opportunities available to the students. Despite the extra money that St. Joseph’s receives in GSNs, it cannot offer its students any more opportunities than RCI can offer its students. To the detriment of our students, neither of our high schools can offer the selection of courses provided in larger urban centres, particularly at the senior (Grades 11 and 12) level. Courses such as Grade 12 physics or calculus are not offered in either school every year. Physics and calculus are mandatory courses for students hoping to apply to many university programs. The Ontario curriculum supports many creative interdisciplinary courses (IDCs) that involve interconnected and interdependent aspects of multiple courses or disciplines. Most small schools are limited in the IDCs they can provide. The reality is that if the two small secondary schools in our community were combined into one, the breadth and depth of curriculum that could be offered to our students would improve significantly.

One solution employed in Renfrew to address the inability to offer elective courses is to combine classes (split classes). It is not unusual for Renfrew students to be in a class with Grades 10, 11 and 12 students for music, French, computer science or technology courses. It is not just elective courses that are split in Renfrew. Compulsory courses such as math, English and science are often split with different pathways (Applied, Academic and Locally Developed) in addition to different grades. Being a student in one of these split classes can be very confusing as they simply cannot get the same focussed attention they might in straight grade/level classes.

Despite its small size, Renfrew can be proud of the great facilities it has to offer its residents. There is an excellent public hospital, picturesque parks, a great public library, fantastic arena, tennis courts and ball fields. As with the two secondary schools, the residents of Renfrew share these facilities with residents of the neighbouring townships. The children from this area grow up together, going to the library program, and playing hockey, soccer, baseball and tennis. They participate in all of these programs together in these publicly funded places but then go to separate publicly funded schools! Students go to school to learn skills and curriculum, but they also learn so much more from the students with whom they spend every day. Being exposed to many different people and ideas only serves to make our students better prepared to live in a world we all share. Schools work very hard to promote inclusion: to make our facilities and programs safe, accepting and accommodating for all students. Our schools are the best place to bring our children together; schools should not be where we keep them apart.

Of course there is a constitutional argument that Roman Catholics have the right to have their children educated in Roman Catholic schools. One innovative solution to the constitutional dilemma worth considering was devised in another secondary school in Renfrew County. Over 20 years ago the residents of Barry’s Bay started to advocate for a new Roman Catholic high school in addition to Madawaska Valley District high school (MVDHS). Instead of building a new school, an agreement was struck between the Roman Catholic and public school boards to hire a Roman Catholic Educator/Pastoral Support Worker. The 419 students at MVDHS have the opportunity to take Religion courses and receive counselling and support from a teacher who is employed by the Roman Catholic school board.

As an educator, this tale of two schools saddens and frustrates me. As a parent, this tale of two schools simply angers me. My children have received a great education, but what kind of education might they have had if there was only one high school in Renfrew? What courses might they have taken? What might they have learned from friends they never had a chance to make? It would be fantastic if Renfrew had the luxury of supporting two schools but, unfortunately, it cannot. The attempt to support multiple schools is punishing our children and seriously impacting their futures and the future of this province. We must do better in this province! We must do better for our children!

About Jeff Barber
Jeff Barber is the Occasional and Teacher Bargaining Unit President in District 28, Renfrew.

15 Comments on A tale of two schools

  1. The main issue here is not whether you think there are not enough students to support 2 high schools but rather that neither building can support the number of students combined. I think it is great to have 2 high schools in Renfrew. As a former student of St. Joe’s, I do not think it would be fair to close either school. Having a Catholic school in the area is important. It not only serves Renfrew, but also Cobden, Haley Station, Eganville, Douglas, Arnproir, and many other small areas. Students have a choice of where they want to go. The schools work hard and have dedicated teachers there to teach the courses that students need for university. As a student who was in a split class for french in grade 11, I found it beneficial. It was not confusing, but rather educational. It also allowed the class to be held, which was more important. I think no matter how much population increases or decreases it would be very difficult to close either high school with their history. Sometimes we shouldn’t look at just the money but the value of each school in its own perspective.

  2. Barbara McGaw // January 9, 2016 at 7:11 pm // Reply

    MVDHS manages to house all the students in one school.
    What governing body determines Northern Statis? It is abundantly unfair that the funding is not applied equitably.
    If the best interests of the students were the focus…there would be an amalgamation.
    The problem rests with the adults.

  3. Kim Acres Scott // January 9, 2016 at 10:01 pm // Reply

    I am an educator at RCI and my children also attend this school. We are all proud to be a part of the Renfrew community but I can not help but agree 100% with Jeff Barber’s observations and suggestions. Renfrew needs one diverse, populated, capable school. Not two functionally denying our children a chance to experience everything possible as Ontario secondary students.

  4. No. The small community we had while at St. Joe’s is what allowed us to excel in our schooling. The cross town rivalry was much more to us than the local sports section in the paper — it gave us an added sense of school pride, a greater sense of community, and a reason to try harder. The Catholic schooling in place at SJCHS made for a far greater experience than that of our RCI counterparts. Our school wad cleaner, or environment was kinder, our community was tighter, and, 15 years later, I still know the names of all of my classmates, teachers, and the SJCHS support staff. More classes and more funding would be nice, but at what cost?

    • Jeffrey Barber // December 22, 2016 at 4:37 pm // Reply

      Thanks for continuing the dialogue Lisa,
      From your comments it is clear that your high school experience was great, but at what cost? Do you not wish a great experience for all today’s and tomorrow’s students? What price is too high? Could a combined SJCHS and RCI not develop a sense of school pride, a sense of community and a reason to try harder against a rival ADHS?
      I think if given a choice you would want ALL students to have a great experience and it will realistically involve combining some of the schools in this Province.
      Thanks for reading my article!

      • Dianna K. Goneau Inkster B.A.(ed.), B.A., M.L.S. // January 18, 2017 at 12:50 pm // Reply

        Exactly. I think some of these Ontario bigots should go to Newfoundland and Labrador and see how the revolution is unfolding there. Newfoundland and Labrador when I was a teacher there in the 1970s had a much more poorly funded school system than we in Ontario did. One little vignette should give you an idea: When I went to school in now Kingston, Ontario in the mid- to late 1960s, we walked into a classroom to learn to type. There was an entire room full of manual typewriters all brand spanking new. We were given a brand new manual from which to learn our touch typing. Fast forward nearly a decade to 1976-1977 school year. I was the school librarian/gd 9 history teacher/gd 11 FSL teacher [the class that would write provincial exams] at Fogo Island Central High School, the only truly Integrated/Roman Catholic high school in the province at the time in 1976-1977. One evening, I was working late in my library in the centre of the high school when . . . Previously, I’d seen the female high school students coming in at 7:00 pm to learn to type. They would have had to get a ride back to the high school in the centre of the island when the nearest communities were 8 miles away and the furthest communities were 15 miles away with their own typewriters. You couldn’t take the course unless you had a typewriter that you begged, borrowed or stole from someone else. What a motley collection of typewriters they scrounged up to take the evening typing course. They also, I believe, had to pay tuition. Anyway, I was working late in the community library when the typing teacher came in all in a dither. Now, he was a very experienced high school teacher so it took a lot to put him into a dither. LOL! “What’s the matter?” I asked. “The supervisor from St John’s is out here tonight,” he gasped. “I’ve only got high school students taking this course. It’s supposed to be an adult education course!” Isn’t this incredible??? In 1976-1977, high school students weren’t even permitted to learn to type!!! Anyway, I don’t think the supervisor said anything to the teacher about his “problem students”. LOL! Fogo Island Central High School with about 300 or so high school students (grade 7 to grade 11) would have been one of the larger high schools in the province and one of the best equipped. I guess Newfoundlanders must have decided in the 90s that a combined school system, a true public education system would serve its students better and savings could be put into activities that really matter like typing classes during the school day for credit. Come on, Ontario! You can do it! You can rise to the occasion and create a great education system like we once had by getting these school boards to co-operate or by ending the Roman Catholic school system! I’d suggest the latter course because how much time do we need to waste in negotiations among 4 school boards. Even the public francophone school board and the public anglophone school board should co-operate a great deal, too, for the good of all our students. The province is busily consolidating hospitals and hospital services throughout the province to save money and improve service (the province says)so why is the education
        system such a sacred cow? I think as well all this new construction going on is not money well spent. We should be putting the money into services so that all our students can succeed.

  5. Some students like a less populated school, they like the more family atmosphere. Many students from both of the Highschools have went out and did well for themselves, so I beg to differ that anyone is really missing out in their education

    • Jeff Barber // April 18, 2016 at 10:13 am // Reply

      Thanks Theresa, but just because many students have done well from each school, doesn’t mean that many more could do better if a change is made. I appreciate that some students prefer small schools, but I am not sure our community can afford to provide that luxury at the cost of other students’ opportunities.

  6. Well written.The duplication of resources,administration costs,and curriculum difficulties leave students in smaller communities in a weaker position as they prepare for post-secondary.The situation for intermediate students is also weakened.They should be in elementary schools,providing leadership and maturing in a better environment for their age.

  7. Jeff: Although I like your thoughts on merging schools, I think your solution is misguided. St. Joes is the only Catholic High school in the south end of Renfrew County, and students from Arnprior through to Cobden are welcome to attend. In that same area, there are 3 Public High schools, each with comparable populations that would fill RCI. Yes, there would be increased transportation costs, but your argument seems to be more about fulfilling the educational needs of students rather than a financial one.
    On finances, though, I’m always struck at the history of Catholic boards across the province and how they seem to be able to meet financial restraints of the government compared with the public boards, but I digress.
    I think the frustration you might be experiencing could be a result of how St. Joes continues to outperform RCI in terms of EQAO and the Fraser institutes ranking of schools in Renfrew County. Maybe your frustration is because the trend is not changing, and your energy would be better served in figuring out how to improve these results for RCI rather than trying to merge two schools whose outcomes in these areas are much different.
    Finally, I’m not sure how you are representing your Bargaining Unit by advocating for merging schools which would inevitably lead to potential job loss, but maybe that’s my misunderstanding.

    • Jeffrey Barber // December 22, 2016 at 4:23 pm // Reply

      Thanks for continuing the dialogue Dave,
      I will start with your last question. Teaching positions are generated by the number of students in the schools. Merging schools will not decrease the student population, and therefore the number of teaching positions should remain constant.
      I think I made my frustrations abundantly clear in my article – but I will repeat my main concern, students in both systems are losing out because we can not realistically support two schools in this community. I am not frustrated by rankings based on a questionable testing regime as there are many other metrics that can be used to measure performance. The true test is do our schools provide our students with all of the opportunities that students in other communities have?
      Hope that helps!
      Thanks for reading my article!

  8. Jeff Barber,
    Would you mind if I placed this on the Forum Page in http://www.WhitewaterEvents.ca
    under your name?


  9. Dianna K. Goneau Inkster B.A.(ed.) B.A. M.L.S. // January 11, 2016 at 12:17 am // Reply

    Why would one high school get the small and remote grant and the other one not? These small and remote grants hinder development of schools. I have no idea why French schools in urban areas such as Kingston Ontario get them. It prohibits the French boards from establishing more than 1 French school in a given city. 2 public French schools are needed in Kingston, but the board only has one. Why? The small and rural school grant is the answer. In Renfrew, if the R.C. high school didn’t get that grant would it continue?

  10. Peter Campbell // December 15, 2016 at 12:52 pm // Reply

    Dave Ingram is right. Jeff Barber is ignoring the most essential component, which is the outcome of the school’s performance.

    For the 2014-15 year, which is when his comments were posted, the Fraser Institute rated St. Joe’s at 8.9 and RCI at 4.4.

    Why should students leave St. Joe’s for RCI is they receive better schooling and there facility is only 20 years old, while the newest wings of the RCI facility is 50 years old and the oldest wing is likely 100 years old.

    Or perhaps the best decision by parents and students is to attend St. Joe’s because students’ overcomes are better and it has a newer building.

    I hope Jeff Barber is not advocating building a new high school building when St. Joe’s new building is only 20 years old.

    Perhaps Jeff Barber envisions St. Joseph’s Catholic High School being expanded so it can accommodate all high school students in the area, thereby allowing all students to attend the Catholic high school.

    • Jeffrey Barber // December 22, 2016 at 4:09 pm // Reply

      Thanks for continuing the dialogue Peter!
      I do not want to engage in a different debate on the value and validity of EQAO testing and the Fraser Institute’s report, but I must ask “Why does St. Joes perform better according to the Fraser Institute?” – Whatever your answer is, who would be disadvantaged if the two schools were combined into one and why?
      My article is about the foolishness of having two schools in a community that can realistically support one. I did not suggest building a new school, all of the students in both schools could fit into one building. (RCI could accommodate all the students without any expansion required, but put them all into St. Joes if it helps – just stop hurting kids by having 2 schools!)
      Thanks for reading my article!

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