The pain of losing Niagara District High School was a focal point of a discussion about support for rural education during a committee of the whole meeting on June 13.
“I think it’s safe to say that without a high school many people who have children who might want to come to our town might not,” said Jim Collard, Niagara-on-the-Lake’s representative on the Community School Alliance and a former teacher and municipal councillor.
Collard was at the town meeting to seek council’s support for the Community School Associations request for increased funding for rural and northern schools from the province of Ontario.
But the conversation revolved around the parallels northern communities have with NOTL, especially the lack of a high school for local youth and the problems of busing.
“We don’t have a high school. It remains a dream,” Collard said.
He encouraged councillors to pursue more interaction with regional school boards and to take a heavier hand in affairs and meetings related to education in order to push for a high school to return to NOTL.
“Did you know that Ontario legislation requires municipal councils and boards of education to meet yearly to discuss matters of mutual concern? That’s a regulation within the province of Ontario. Sadly, those meetings rarely take place,” said Collard.
“If you work constructively with the boards, maybe you can make something happen.”
Collard recalled some of the bitterness over the closing of Niagara District in 2010.
“Many municipalities do not pay attention to the activities of their boards of education until it’s too late. I know that we were in that boat. The numbers worked against us. The rules of the day worked against us,” he said.
“We were three months away from having our high school designated as an international baccalaureate school. We raised over $100,000 within the community to send teachers to Bryce University in Houston to be trained in the IB program.”
“Three months away and sadly the plug was pulled on our school.”
Coun. Clare Cameron lamented the lack of visibility NOTL’s teens receive.
“There are so many deep emotions and I think there’s still a lot of anger, there’s a lot of sadness, there’s a lot of, ‘Why us?’ Or, ‘Why not us?’ And ‘What about our kids?’” Cameron said.
“Why, in one of the really outstanding communities across Niagara, for lots of reasons — for quality of life — why is our younger population treated as if they’re invisible?” she said.
Cameron said the town needs to work on rebuilding its relationship with regional school boards in order to better position the town for its educational needs in the future, a position that Collard also touted.
Coun. Wendy Cheropita asked Collard what the municipality can do to help get a high school in NOTL again.
“Develop the plan to move forward. That’s the first step. You have to be able to have something concrete that you can deal with so you can go to the trustees and you can have staff go to the directors and see what they’re willing to talk about,” he said.
Coun. Erwin Wiens emphasized the importance that NOTL create a comprehensive plan regarding any future school.
“If we want a school, we’re going to have to have a business model that somebody can adopt and champion. Without a business model, they won’t do it,” Wiens said.
“As a next step we have to identify institutional land then build a model and go to them with our plan because if we don’t have a plan in place they won’t listen to us.”
Lord Mayor Betty Disero sought to comfort councillors by assuring them work is happening in the community to address the lack of a high school in NOTL.
“There’s a group out there that’s working,” Disero said in an interview on Tuesday.
“And Kirsten (McCauley), our planner, has been working with the school boards in Glendale. Nobody is going to forget about it.”
“There are a couple members of the public who have been talking with the school boards on creating even a part-time place for high school students to be able to land in Niagara-on-the-Lake,” Disero told councillors.
Disero is referring to NOTL resident Caroline Polgrabia’s efforts to launch the Niagara-on-the-Lake Youth Campus.
“That’s been going on and I truly believe it has been successful,” the mayor said.
“It’s slow as molasses in the way it’s moving but that’s generally what happens in every sort of government administration. People have great intentions but sometimes it takes a little longer than anticipated.”
McCauley said town staff have been actively investigating the possibility of schools in Glendale as they build the secondary plan for the fast-growing area.
She said the town is working with the school boards to determine whether an elementary or high school will be needed in Glendale.
Wiens noted while NOTL has no high school, there are three elementary schools under the region’s two boards: St. Michael’s Catholic Public School, Crossroads Elementary School and St. Davids Public School.
On top of that there are at least two private elementary schools: Royal Oak School and Vineridge Academy (located on the former Niagara District site).
“So, there are a lot of students (in NOTL),” Wiens said.
According to the 2021 census, there are 2,100 kids ages 14 and under, plus another 835 between 15 and 19.
After Grade 8 graduation, all of the younger kids will need to start either taking buses or getting rides from their parents to attend high school in Niagara Falls or St. Catharines.
Don MacDougall, former teacher, head of the history department and sports coach for more than 30 years at Niagara District, lamented the state of education for NOTL kids, particularly the use of busing.
“Busing is not a good thing and they’ve done studies proving it. It’s an academic problem. Kids don’t perform as well. They are up an hour before everyone else in order to catch a bus,” MacDougall said in an interview.
He criticized school boards for shutting schools in small municipalities in order to maintain enrolment levels in larger municipalities such as St. Catharines.
Despite the fact NOTL is a growing community and has been for decades, the decision was still made to shut Niagara District.
“Why? Because the St. Catharines trustees, they don’t want to close their schools. They don’t give a s— what happens to the other areas,” he said.
NOTL does not have a dedicated trustee representing the town on the public or Catholic boards. NOTL’s trustees are joint between St. Catharines and Niagara Falls.
MacDougall said reclaiming education for kids in NOTL starts with the town.
“The problem in this town is priorities. At one time, kids were a priority. They’re not today,” he said.
“You’ve got 840 kids today and they’re victims. They are all victims.”
“I sit in my home on Line 7 as buses go by, one after another. This is the worst, I swear to God.”