Good-By, Little Red School!

Still a familiar part of the country landscape, its day is passing as modern education goes rural

ARTHUR P. WOOLLACOTT December 15 1939

Good-By, Little Red School!

Still a familiar part of the country landscape, its day is passing as modern education goes rural

ARTHUR P. WOOLLACOTT December 15 1939

Good-By, Little Red School!



Still a familiar part of the country landscape, its day is passing as modern education goes rural

THOSE OF the older generation born and raised on this continent are sentimentally interested in the fate of the Little Red School; it belongs to their past, and they think it is gone forever.

They see their progeny marching through those magnificent modern institutions, the junior and senior high schools. They assure one another with nostalgic finality that "we never had such advantages in our time.”

It is because of the legitimate desire of fond parents that their children should have equal opportunities with others that the fate of the rural school and all that it connotes is of national importance.

It will surprise many of those who are carried away by the glamour of "modem progress.” to learn that more than a third of all the children in Canada and the United States are receiving their education in one-room, ungraded schools in an environment not much, if at all. in advance of the old schooldays. If the two and three-rex an schools are included, the rural total reaches one half of the entire school population.

What gives point to the situation is that these rural children are laboring under serious handicaps. The small, low-salaried school district, with jxx>r equipment and other grave deficiencies, is a factor of weakness in Canadian life. It requires attention of the best administrative minds.

The depression, with its demand for economy, gave critics of the school system their chance to set in motion reforms that were long overdue. The picture is the same right across Canada, in the oldest as well as in the youngest provinces. Incidentally, it may be remarked that the lag in the United States is even greater. The small school district, sup|x>rted largely if not wholly by local contributions, originated with the Pilgrim Fathers in the New England States. The system was carried over to Canada by the United Empire Loyalists over a hundred years ago. and has continued in both countries with little basic change until today.

Taxation and Education

IT WAS the taxpayer’s pocket that first felt the pinch in matters educational, about the beginning of the present decade. Thousands of small school districts throughout Canada found themselves tx> prx>r to pay their teachers. This in itself exjx>sed the fundamental weakness of the system as it operates in rural communities—that of the incidence of taxation. Farseeing educators took advantage

of the taxpayer's vulnerability to arguments affecting his pocket, to launch a campaign for sweeping reforms, not only in taxation, but in raising the standard of education and health in the rural sections.

As far back as 1918, H. W. Foght, in a survey of the school system in Saskatchewan, recommended the disestablishment of all small school districts and a reorganization in larger administrative areas. In spite of this diagnosis of an obsolescent system. Saskatchewan was outdistanced by British Columbia in 1934 and Alberta in 1936. In both these provinces the "Large Administrative Area” proved so remarkably successful that all other provinces have since fallen in line.

As the problem is virtually the same in all provinces, an account of the work in British Columbia and Alberta, with briefer references to the progress made in other provinces, will show what is being done to put Canadian rural districts on an equal educational footing with the highly organized and efficient urban systems.

In 1934, Dr. W. A. Plenderleith of the British Columbia Department of Education was instructed to reorganize the sixty-five small school districts in the Peace River section of tire province into one large division under a centralized authority.

The inspectorate comprised 6.150 square miles in a district populated by 13,000 representatives of almost every nationality, and adherents of almost every religion known to man.

Most of the schools were in charge of young girls obtaining their first year’s teaching experience to fit them for positions closer to the large centres. The usual school building was very crude, made of logs and heated by a sheet-iron stove which left large parts of the room unthawed in zero weather. There was little provision for ventilation; the blackboards in many cases were just plain tar paper; the back of the room was frequently stacked with firewood draped with damp coats, scarves, hats and rubbers. In the mosquito season indoor smudges filled the room with eyesmarting smoke. Toilet facilities were poor; drinking water was obtained from melted snow in winter and from unsanitary scoop-outs in summer. There was a general dearth of equipment; no supplementary texts were supplied, and only a few battered, obsolete novels formed the library, if one existed. There was no playground equipment and no provision was made for extracurricular activities. In many cases there were no barns to shelter the horses on which the children rode to school.

In the reorganization the inspector became the Official Trustee, replacing the 195 district trustees; he was also the Director of Education, and was in fact in sole charge of the entire area. But the former trustees were elected in their respective localities as usual, to act in an advisory capacity only, in matters affecting their immediate neighborhoods. This local participation was intended to prevent too rigid

bureaucratic control with possible political dictation from the government of the day.

Notable Improvements

IN THE first year, in spite of numerous additional services and improvements, this experimental unit saved $2,800 on the year’s operating expenses. In the following year a saving of more than $12,000 was made in the business administration of the system by elimination of secretaries’ allowances and audit fees, bank charges on sixty-five individual accounts, standardizing janitor services, purchase of supplies in bulk, and a general avoidance of waste of school funds through a proper system of budgeting and accounting.

The pass lists were increased ten per cent due to a careful selection of teachers and readjustment among those retained. A salutary esprit de corps was established by making the division a promotion area, putting into effect a salary schedule, guaranteeing an annual increment for satisfactory work, and generally adjusting salaries on the basis of services rendered. Tenure of office became more secure. Teachers were no longer subject to the humiliating caprices of the petty dictators of the district; the tendency to move on to more congenial pastures was practically eliminated, as compared with a former personnel turnover that frequently amounted to fifty per cent.

A junior high school was established at Dawson Creek, where technical courses were arranged for pupils from adjacent districts. Two new high schools were built at other points, and all pupils attending them were given free tuition. Free night school classes were provided at twentydifferent centres where formerly none were in operation. Improved equipment was bought. Library books were distributed to every school, and nine library centres for adults were inaugurated. These were supplied by a rotating system of libraries controlled by the official trustee. Free dental service was provided for more than a thousand children. as well as a free health service and the payment of the district’s share of the Peace River Health Unit established under the Rockefeller grant. Replacement of old structures. opening of four new schools, construction of fourteen icehouses to supply drinking water in summer and seven new barns to shelter ponies, improvement of all school buildings to commendable standards in sanitation, lighting, heating and ventilation—these were some of the things accomplished by expert handling of school affairs in a large way.

Notwithstanding the cost of all the above improvements, and in addition to the $12.000 saved in operation, school taxes were reduced 1.4 mills, making an actual cash saving of $4,315 to the taxpayer in the division up to the end of 1936. Under the new system the cost per pupil was $6.55 below the average cost per pupil for other parts of the province.

Before the reorganization was put into effect, sixty per cent of the teachers were young inexperienced girls presiding over ungraded groups of both sexes ranging in age from six to eighteen. By 1936 the proportion was reversed, sixty per cent of the teachers being men with a wider experience.

The reorganization met opjx;>sition at first, chiefly from the trustees. Not only had they derived a certain amount of local prestige in office, but often financial and other emoluments as well. The most bitter opponents, however, have since seen the light and now give their wholehearted support to a scheme which has made a wonderful difference in the lives of the country people, for adults as well as children have profited.

When the system was introduced, its purpose was not to demonstrate that a large gross saving in the cost of education was possible. It was primarily intended to give rural children an equal educational opportunity with children in the wealthier centres, since it is recognized by leaders in education that school money should be found wherever wealth exists, and that equal opportunity should be provided regardless of the poverty or wealth of the area in which the children live. The idea that prevailed in Canada a hundred years ago that “tuition should be free to a limited number of the decent poor,’’ is now superseded by acceptance of the principle that more fortunate members of society should contribute to the education of the less fortunate, which leads to the recognition that a transfer of the burden of school taxation from property to corporation and individual net incomes is the most equitable and satisfactory form of raising money to defray the cost of education.

The Suburban Experiment

HPHE SUCCESS of the Peace River ex-

periment resulted in the reorganization of a similar large unit in the MatsquiAbbotsford-Sumas district in the lower Fraser Valley near Vancouver, in a longsettled and prosperous section of the province—the very antithesis, in fact, of the pioneer Peace River country.

It might be argued that conditions in the latter division were so primitive that they could not well be worse, and that the improvements merely brought the schools up to a standard that already existed in older communities. Yet in the suburban municipalities the improvements brought about were just as remarkable in every phase of educational activity. It was shown that older communities may profit as much as newer sections of the country by the organization of many small school districts under one central control, or even by organization of several municipalities, as was the case in this second experiment.

Operating costs were less, instruction was better, health and recreation services were introduced, and it was possible to set up gymnasium centres in the schools and elsewhere for the children and adults. Handicraft classes were arranged, bus transportation to consolidated schools was improved with a saving in this one item of S3.000 a year, and an annual musical and dramatic festival was arranged for the children by the B. C. Dramatic Association. One of the best rural auditoriums in the province was built, as well as up-todate workshops for practical courses in farm mechanics and homemaking.

To these workshops the pupils of nineteen schools of the district are transported by a system of seven buses. Here the students are given practical courses suited to their individual requirements and abilities. Fifteen hundred children receive free dental services, and four nurses examine schoolchildren once a month, visit their homes to inspect those of pre-school age, instruct expectant mothers, and deliver lectures on pre-natal and post-natal care.

By consolidating the students from three high schools in the neighborhood of the Abbotsford centre, and by transporting the elementary pupils from four sections to larger sections, a saving of $8.000 a year was effected. The basic salary of elemen-

tary teachers, which is set for the whole province at $780. was increased in this area to $820, and that of high school teachers from $1.200 to $1,250. Only a few are receiving basic salaries, however, since most of them are on a footing that compares well with cities.

Alberta Reorganizes

'"THESE TWO experiments in British Columbia were closely watched by the authorities in Alberta. The system of centralized control over a large area was so obviously sound, practical, efficient and economical that the Government of Alberta. in January. 1937. reorganized 744 small rural school districts in eleven large divisions on the pattern of the British Columbia unit.

In the following year eleven more were set up and this year twenty-two more, making a total of forty-four large divisions which take in 3.104 of the 3,472 small school districts. Each division is run by a superintendent assisted by a small board. The boards do the work of over nine thousand local trustees, although the latter are elected as usual to act in an advisory capacity in matters affecting their localities.

In all divisions large savings have been made, and the advantages of the British Columbia “Large Areas’’ became available to many children. Abler men and women are now elected for the divisional boards, since there is a wider field to choose from and the office of people’s representative has become more im¡x)rtant. These citizens replace the ignorant and mercenary type of trustee that often lorded it over some of the small districts. A greater spirit of democracy prevails with new optimism and progress. The schools have become community centres where old and young gather to make life more worth living.

Because of the new status of the teacher under this new deal it is now possible to envision a group of rural school specialists, teachers who remain in the rural schools from choice, and who have, through experience, specialized training, facility with the single-room type of organization, and community interest, made themselves almost priceless as rural citizens. The divisional administrators are making conditions so attractive to such teachers that there will be little temptation for them to seek city appointments.

In many divisions substantial arrears of teachers’ salaries were inherited from the old boards. Steps were taken to pay them in full. The Rocky Mountain Division, for instance, paid off $3,186 of such arrears, in addition to other old liabilities. In parentheses Alberta admits thatin 1934 teachers’ salaries were in arrears to the amount of $318,000 and that up to the new deal this had substantially increased, but provision has now been made to liquidate the debt in three years time at the outside.

Passing over the full list of improvements due to better business management, it seems like an anticlimax to add that the cost of operation of the first eleven large divisions in 1937 was $51,500 less than the cost of operating all the formersmall school districts in thesameterritoryin 1936before the reorganization. On this basis over two and a half million dollars will be saved annually in operation alone when the fifty divisions into which Alberta will be finally divided, are fully established.

Since 1913 Saskatchewan has experimented with consolidated attendance units. In 1933 there were forty-one consolidated schools employing 173 teachers. Although results were good, the cos! of conveying children to these centres discouraged other areas from establishing similar schools. An education tax of two per cent on retail purchases, excepting certain staples, went into operation in 1937, and is enabling the Government to double its contribution to education. In the current year this tax will bring in more than three million dollars. With such a financial background for educational purposes, Saskatchewan looks to reorganizing its school system by adopting the plan of

larger units, on the recommendation of the Teachers’ and Trustees’ associations.

In Manitoba the municipality has been advocated as the unit of school government because of the success of the Minota Municipality Unit. Before reorganization the unit contained three consolidated schools and eight one-room rural schools controlled by eleven boards. Now it consists of four consolidated schools and four ungraded schools controlled by one board. The case for the establishment of larger units in Manitoba has been greatly strengthened.

In Prince Edward Island 474 school districts are run by 1,200 trustees, furnishing education to 18.000 children. Here the leaders expect to reorganize either on the county plan or with the whole province as the unit.

The province of Quebec, where the municipality is the unit, has been urged by a survey commission to group all the small rural districts in nine large areas.

Both Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have made recent surveys of counties with a view to establishing Larger Units of Administration. A survey in King’s County, N.B., was carried out by Dr. W. A. Plenderleith following his success in putting the Peace River area upon a sound working basis.

In Ontario about 5,000 teachers operate one-room schools in small districts. In 1927 permissive legislation was enacted whereby a whole township could be formed into a larger unit. York and East York are the only townships completely organized on this plan. But seven other townships have availed themselves of this legislation to the extent of putting into effect partly developed units.

York Township has a population of 70,000, with three hundred teachers in charge of 11,500 schoolchildren in twelve school sections, spending two and a half million dollars in education a year. After unification, all the advantages enumerated in connection with Western units were secured—that is to say, teachers were redistributed, their salaries were adjusted, and a better teaching service resulted. Auxiliary classes were formed, and manual training and household science introduced. Home and School associations have been encouraged and built up. A school medical officer, seven full-time nurses and six dentists provide an adequate health service. Tax rates were placed on a more satisfactory basis, and in 1935 a budget of §60,000 below the expenditure of the previous unorganized twelve sections was possible.

Opinion in Ontario is divided as to the best course that reform in administration should take. There are advocates in favor

of extending the township scheme and others who favor a county unit. In 1932 the Ontario Minister of Education estimated that 199 small rural schools could be closed and suitable arrangements made for educating the pupils in neighboring schools even without providing transportation; but by using modern transportation facilities the number of small schools which could be closed w’ould be many times this number. Some educationists feel that a larger administrative unit is the most pressing need of education in Ontario; they forecast as an advantage the reduction of the number of rural public school authorities in the counties from about 4,800 to 430. With the success of the plan in York Township and in the Western provinces, it is expected that the scheme will be rapidly extended throughout Ontario.

A National Concern

SINCE the depression our educational system has come in for a lot of criticism. Many jobless people have also asked themselves if it all makes sense. An “outside audit” of the system has been advocated to bring education back closer to reality. Another criticism is that in Canada we have no Federal authority to take a general view of the situation, to make surveys and appraisals and so place an authoritative body of information at the service of the provinces, which all along have been working in separate compartments, each more or less in the dark as to what others are doing.

Education is the concern of the provinces under Confederation, but in the last half century the whole pattern of life has changed with no commensurate educational change in rural areas where fifty per cent of the school population is found. To compete in a high-geared world the rural child must have access to the best type of education available.

It is, after all, a national concern. Ottawa has recognized this from time to time in grants for technical and agricultural education, but in the view' of leaders in education a uniform advance cannot be made in Canada until the Dominion establishes a bureau of education, for research to supply the provinces with up-to-date information, to suggest means of co-ordination and to indicate the extent to which provincial grants should be supplemented.

The setting up of larger units in all provinces is a forward step. Their success is a rousing demonstration of community self-help, in fact the greatest event that has ever occurred in this field. Actually we are only beginning a movement which will eventually bring the system more in accord w’ith the complex requirements of modern life.