Thursday, 28 June 2012

Love in a Dangerous Time

Today, June 28, 2012, marks the last day Peterborough Collegiate and Vocational School will operate as such – at least for the time being.

The coincidence of the natural conclusion of the school year with the judicial ruling in favour of the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board has elevated the emotional intensity of both phenomena for students, parents, teachers, and the whole spectrum of PCVS supporters.

Two Fridays ago, Rick Mercer commented to one PCVS supporter during a chance meeting on a Toronto street his impression that the following Monday evening would bring the court’s decision. Sure enough, the ruling dismissing the suit brought by Peterborough Needs PCVS against KPR was made public late that Monday.

Though the coordinators of the legal action against the board had from the outset made clear their awareness that the odds of a court ruling against a public body nominally governed by elected officials were slim, many factors encouraged PCVS supporters to have hope that the case against the board was substantial enough to make it an exception.

Only when the ray of hope is extinguished does one realize just how bright that ray had begun to seem.

At least the court had the decency to wait until after the annual outdoor grad party to make their decision known. Unfortunately, exams began two days later.

Lawyers for both sides had requested of the court that its decision be made public as soon as possible, as everyone involved in the disputed proposal to close PCVS could see that only negative impacts on students, families, and teaching staff would ensue were September’s school configurations not settled by the end of June.

One price of the promptly-revealed decision is the absence of the complete ruling, and PCVS supporters won’t know the rationale behind the court’s thinking for a little while yet. Without the judges’ full written response, it’s difficult to speculate on the precedents that might be set by such a decision – or the precedents on which it might be based.

Students, teachers and parents responded to the news by gathering at the school that night to share in the powerful sense of community engendered by the collective reaction to the assault on Peterborough’s leading educational light by a myopic bureaucracy.

The “I Love PCVS” dance recital the week prior was an even bigger celebration of power of the magical institution to bring diverse backgrounds and interests together in collaborative artistic achievement, and to raise students far beyond what they may have perceived their abilities to be.

The great irony of the evening lay in the use of what is most valuable about PCVS – the spirit of collaborative creativity – to tell the story of the school’s battle with administrators who are emblematic of everything that is wrong with the way public education is managed in this province.

Dance teacher Suzie Clarke, herself a PCVS alumna, has been a dynamic force in the school during her brief tenure at her alma mater, and her energy and commitment inspired many students who had never studied dance before to open up new avenues of movement and expression for themselves – and to have the confidence to share that with the entire community.

The dances performed for the show were nothing short of stunning, from the beginning of the program to the end. Students tapped into their strong feelings for PCVS and their passion in defending it as they prepared the performances. Students themselves choreographed many of the dances, and their perspective on the battle with school board administrators and deaf trustees shone crystal clear throughout the night. Many of them have been posted on YouTube – you might start by watching this one. 

Some of the most inspiring moments of the night came from the English-as-a-Second-Language dance class, who instead of pre-printed “I Love PCVS” t-shirts wore ones with “I Love PCVS” hand-written in the students’ first languages. The ability of PCVS to turn diversity into unity was symbolized neatly when the dancers used cards marked with the name of their country of origin as props, then flipped them over to reveal letters spelling out “Raiders.” The love-in at the end of the second night saw many tears spilled for the joy of personal growth in the context of collective action.

A documentary made by grade 12 student Zan Bilz built from interviews with PCVS students demonstrates in no uncertain terms the way the culture of the school brings out the natural potential of young people by encouraging them to explore their unique qualities rather than forcing them to conform to a standard.

 Such is the process of education, in which abilities innate in the organism are “educed,” or drawn out, by sympathetic mentors and encouraging peers. Education really is a kind of magic, isn’t it? Perhaps this is one reason why PCVS is so readily compared with J.K.Rowling’s Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

One of the legacies of the Harris-era amalgamations that created KPR was the end of the use of the term “board of education.” The monstrosities birthed by Harris are known rather as “school boards.” This is a more accurate term for the new beasts, which are in both name and deed not interested in “educing” anything from young people, but only in managing their progress through the curriculum from one standardized test to the next.

PCVS parent and civic activist Bill Templeman spoke for thousands of PCVS supporters when he told the Examiner that the battle isn’t over. All along, the Peterborough Needs PCVS organizing committee stated that a political solution was preferential to a legal one in every way.

The PCVS case has demonstrated conclusively that the current Ontario government has no interest in holding school boards accountable to their tax-paying constituents, but only to the corporate, political, and bureaucratic interests that dominate Queen’s Park.

Recent stories (here and here) by investigative journalist Kevin Donovan (who earlier this year helped expose the ORNGE scandal) show the tip of the iceberg of Liberal backroom interference at the Toronto District School Board, revealing that employees have been pressured to campaign on behalf of both trustees and provincial Liberal candidates, while supportive unions have had their coffers filled with Liberal “slush fund” money. The web seems to extend to Peterborough, as suggested not only by the PCVS case, but by the explicit promotion of the Liberal party in recent campaigns by local teachers’ unions, in spite of the fact that one of their own members, Dave Nickle, has been the NDP candidate.

The closure of PCVS is the most egregious indication of a system gone wrong from top to bottom. Yet over the past year the PCVS community has responded in most admirable fashion, turning the assault on our city’s cornerstone into an opportunity for further community development and promotion of “the PCVS way.”

Awareness of the way schools should be run has never been higher.

And the love for PCVS has never been greater.   

This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong, 
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Then, Now and Forever

The intensity of feeling among the PCVS community has perhaps never been stronger than over the past two weeks, as the 2011-12 school year draws to its conclusion.

The PCVS student film festival, awards ceremony, and dance performances have focused the emotional charge of the community through the prism of student achievement. The sentiments expressed in documentaries, speeches, music, dance, and animation have at times been overwhelming. Wondering whether this will be the last such series of June events celebrating the work of PCVS students has brought even more tears than usual in response to these artistic and rhetorical expressions of love for PCVS and respect for one another. You can watch one documentary, “PCVS Then, Now and Forever,” here, and an animated piece, "Ode to PCVS," here.

The shared pride in what has been accomplished at PCVS to date as a nurturing, stimulating environment in which to come of age has become dramatically intensified in the past year in response to attacks by a corporately-influenced school board. The possibility of losing our community cornerstone has made almost everyone appreciate it that much more, and the response of students to the attack has only added to their reputation for maturity, civic awareness, and collective creativity.

While students and parents have been sharing moments of overflowing joy, sorrow and pride in the venerable PCVS auditorium, judges and lawyers at Osgoode Hall in downtown Toronto have been mulling over reams of legal documentation in an effort to reach a decision whose implications outweigh the substance of the case a hundredfold.

Anxiety built rapidly among Peterborough Needs PCVS supporters as the case was taken up in the courtroom last Wednesday and Thursday. The suspense of not knowing what the outcome of the judicial review will be, when it will be released, or on what basis decisions will be made, has resulted in a unique, pervasive sense of sitting in limbo. 

The previous post outlined the terrible precedent a decision in favour of KPR would set for the expectations of publicly-funded bodies in adhering to public policy and responding to the needs of the public. If KPR is allowed to get away with their egregious conduct, the standards to which Ontario school boards are held will degenerate, and the accountability and responsiveness of administrators to the people they serve will continue to diminish.

Posts made this past spring regarding social and economic disasters in Welland and Sault Ste. Marie following the closure of historic, central public high schools offer a glimpse of what the impact of a judicial decision in favour of KPR might have on Peterborough. Those posts show the key role played by central, public schools as anchors of urban communities. The deterioration of central Peterborough following the loss of PCVS would take the form of a downward spiral of increasing residential vacancies, falling land values, empty storefronts, the closure of the Freshco grocery store on Brock Street, more residential vacancies, and so on.

Such a downward spiral would mean decreasing standard of living and community disintegration for citizens of central Peterborough. It would also mean headaches and expenses for city hall as municipal authorities are forced to combat the deterioration as best they can. It would also mean headaches for Queen’s Park, as the plan to make Peterborough a population growth node will be much less feasible if the center of the city becomes anything like Welland or Sault Ste. Marie.

A decision in favour of  KPR would also have negative impacts on the reputation and popularity of our MPP Jeff Leal, Premier Dalton McGuinty, and the Liberal party, among a great number of Peterborough citizens. While Progressive Conservative candidate Alan Wilson has demonstrated that he’s keen to capitalize on dwindling public confidence in Leal, the increasing appeal of NDP leader Andrea Horwath and the initiative her party has taken in the legislature regarding education issues this past year suggest that a good local NDP candidate would stand an equal chance of sending Leal into retirement.

NDP MPP Rosario Marchese (Trinity-Spadina) has introduced another bill in the legislature to include school boards among the public bodies falling under the purview of the Ontario Ombudsman’s office. The NDP is also responsible for amending the government’s anti-bullying bill, passed last week, to oblige Catholic schools to allow students to create Gay-Straight Alliance clubs. A decision in favour of KPR would undermine the government’s expressed commitment to reducing sexuality-based bullying in schools.

Given the evidence showing how integral central public high schools are to their communities across the province, the questions recently raised about Ontario’s full funding of Catholic school boards, and the fact that McGuinty, Horwath, PC leader Tim Hudak, and Education Minister Laurel Broten were all raised Catholic, it would seem a good political choice for almost any candidate or party in the next provincial election to come out strongly in favour of investing in those downtown public high schools, rather than encouraging school boards to attack them, as the Liberal government has done.

McGuinty created his “education premier” persona by appealing to young parents in capping elementary class sizes and expanding kindergarten. As the children of those parents grow and move into high school, will their families remain on the Liberal bandwagon if high school consolidation and community disintegration becomes the order of the day across Ontario?

For KPR’s current Director of Education and Chairperson of the Board, a decision in the board’s favour would vindicate their stubborn refusal to co-operate with the Peterborough public in any way at all. It would also make the recommendations for policy revisions made by Joan Green moot, since it will have been made plain that school boards are in effect free to manipulate policy however they like while ignoring the public and their municipal representatives. KPR bean-counters will be free to move quickly onto their next targets, likely to include Adam Scott, Armour Heights, Keith Wightman, the Cobourg high schools, and South Monaghan elementary.

As PCVS Foundation president Jay Amer remarked at the close of the Peterborough Needs PCVS event at Market Hall this past Sunday evening, however, the next school board election is less than two-and-a-half years away. Amer, who unsuccessfully sought a Peterborough seat on the board of trustees in the last election, would likely receive much more support if he chose to run for the position again. Given the terrible performance of the obviously inept current collection of trustees, their lack of credentials, and the deterioration of their reputations, one would hope there would be a concerted attempt to find a slate of potential replacements for them. As Amer observed, there’s nothing to stop a new board of trustees from making a motion to re-open PCVS a few years from now.

Event MC Dan Fewings managed to make a little magic by turning Don McLean’s “Starry, Starry Night” into a poignant song about PCVS without changing a word, capping a night where every piece of music was carefully chosen and powerfully presented to bring out its relevance to PCVS and the siege under which the school board has put it. Evangeline Gentle’s beautiful love to song to PCVS, "184," with its “coming out” suggestions, made a perfect complement to Tara Urabe’s reprise of the “Change in Me” number from the Beauty and the Beast musical recently performed by the Grade 11 musical theater class. Belle’s epiphany, the realization that good can come from bad, was never so richly and immediately evident as it was in the context of speeches by student leaders Matthew Finlan, Colin Chepeka and Kirsten Bruce (who seemed to have been channeling Harry, Ron and Hermione) as they reflected eloquently on the school year.

Peterborough Needs PCVS organizer, former principal Shirl Delarue, was the subject of a richly-deserved standing ovation and gifts. Her speech, focused on the amazing community effort over the course of the campaign, also for a moment expressed indignation at a statement from KPR’s court case which spoke volumes of the disconnection of Fisher Drive from both PCVS and central Peterborough.

KPR referred to PCVS as an “academic luxury” the board could “no longer afford.” That this claim could be made in spite of the countless testimonies of recent immigrants just learning English, students living in shelters or other low-income circumstances, students who’ve been bullied at other schools, and students who wouldn’t have finished school at all if PCVS hadn’t been an option, added insult to injury, and further diminished the reputation of school board officials, if such was possible.

To the contrary of KPR’s dismissive attitude, the events of the past week have shown that the spirit of the PCVS community has only been made stronger by KPR’s political power play. 

As Evangeline’s song says, it’s not time for this beauty to sleep.