Schools are one of the largest and most under-utilized groups of all public facilities, according to a B.C. non-profit organization, but that could be changing in this district.
That's if the local school board takes the advice of former local trustee and retired teacher Bill Preston and former B.C. principal and teacher Don Reimer.
Reimer and Preston are members of the Association for Community Education in B.C. (ACEbc) and they made a presentation to the school board last week advising it to take steps that would allow schools in the district to become designated Community Schools. And the idea was well received by board Chair Lynette Kershaw and trustee Julie Austin.
"There are so many aspects of you presentation that resonate with me, with where we are right now," said Kershaw.
In their presentation, Reimer and Preston talked about the benefits of Community Schools, which include "extended hours, extended services and extended relationships," according to a pamphlet passed out at the meeting.
In theory, the schools would be used beyond the 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. time slot and bring community members of all walks of life to the public facilities for the benefit of everyone.
"People start to shift their idea about what a school is. A school is not just for kids who go to that school and their parents," Preston told The NEWS. "This is our school, you know? We pay taxes. There can be all kinds of programs, services and activities for all community members, depending on what the local needs are."
Both Preston and Reimer have worked at Community Schools and have been involved in the transition of a conventional school to a Community School.
Trustee Ross Milligan questioned the cost to the district, stating, "right now, we just don't have the money for a coordinator."
But the local school board would only have to provide a "minimal amount" of seed money, said Preston, which would allow for the hiring of a coordinator, who would then leverage funds and partnerships in the community that would increase the dollars that go into the initiative by at least three times, he said. He said that is evident in the many schools that have become community schools around the province, including a family of schools in Nanaimo.
Community Schools can also have a positive influence on the health of the community, Dr. Ansel Updegrove said at the meeting. He is a chiropractor in Nanaimo and the director of wellness for the B.C. Chiropractic Association. He's also the former vice president of Ford Motor Company and mentioned that Ford, along with United Way, are currently in a multi-million-dollar partnership with community enhancement programs, and Community Schools in the province will be seeing funding as a result. Updegrove is currently working with three Community Schools in Nanaimo to introduce a whole foods program which he said will bring health benefits and increase experiential learning of students. The earning potential for schools is more like a six-to-one return when you add health into the equation, Updegrove stated.
"It's not an expense, it's an investment and the return in significant," he said.
Preston made it clear that the seed money needed would not come from the regular operating budget (there is currently a $1.3 million deficit for this school year), but could come from the district's CommunityLINK funds.
Those provincial government dollars are earmarked for things like Community Schools, as well as for services such as breakfast and lunch programs, school-based support workers and counselling for at-risk children and youth. How that money is allocated is up to trustees, Preston said.
Reimer was principal at both Hornby and Denman Island schools when they became Community Schools. He spoke very positively about the changes that came to those schools, but also said the designation made them a desirable selling point for buyers looking to purchase homes in those areas. The Community School designation was listed front and centre on one of the real estate companies' website on Denman, he said.
Preston said although schools in French Creek and Errington previously entered into an agreement with the school board of the time to become Community Schools, the agreement lapsed and the schools were never officially designated, meaning that a coordinator was never hired and that governance was not provided by a local community school council.
Trustee Julie Austin could not make Tuesday's meeting but board chair Lynette Kershaw read an e-mail from her stating she had researched the Community School model and believed it was well worth further investigation by the district.
Kershaw added her comments to complete the discussion and echoed Austin's remarks.
She said she would like the board and staff to look at the CommunityLINK dollars and see if some of the ideas presented could be incorporated.
She said schools are community assets and perhaps being open the conventional times might not be the best use of the taxpayer's facilities.
"I think it behooves us at the district level, the board level, to have a look and really... think outside the box."
Kershaw went on to say the Minister of Education has suggested the board look at shared services to help save costs and try to increase community involvement.
"What you presented us tonight ticks a lot of boxes for me," she said.