THE SHACKS WE CALL SCHOOLS
We’re so busy boasting about the handful of new schools we’ve built since the war that we forget about the thousands which have no lights, no indoor toilets, no drinking fountains, no maps and no libraries. Experts quote figures to prove that these primitive conditions threaten to make a mockery of modern education
EVERY few days a local newspaper somewhere in Canada boastfully announces the opening of a new school. Ultra-modern schools with glass-block walls, air conditioning, acoustic ceilings, terrazzo floors and enough windows for a rose-grower’s greenhouse are springing up across Canada faster than hot-dog stands at a fall fair. We are boasting about our new post-war schools, and many of them are worth boasting about.
But we are boasting so much that we have completely obscured the fact that thousands of Canada’s schools are dilapidated, dungeonlike, draughty, ill-furnished shacks that no progressive farmer would keep his milk herd in.
There are 1,500 or more shining new schools in Canada less than four years old. There are also about 10,000 without lights which close early every dull afternoon because students cannot see the blackboards. Around the same number have outdoor toilets. There are a thousand or so whose only water supply is a bucket dipped into a nearby lake or stream. An estimated 5,000 still use only a pail and dipper for drinking water. There are, believe it or not, 31 log-cabin schools still used in Ontario, 42 in Manitoba, and no one has counted how many more in the rest of Canada.
John B. Parkin, Toronto school architect, lashed out bitterly last year: “Many schools, in towns
as well as rural areas, are nothing but grim and ugly fortresses, super fire traps with high ceilings, oily floors, poor lighting, Victorian sanitary facilities and little play space . . .”
Nora Hodgins, secretary of the Ontario Teachers’ Federation, said recently: “In many parts of
Ontario, farmers have provided better coops for their chickens than schools for their children. Labor unions would howl and parents would refuse to work under conditions which exist in hundreds of schools. But children are compelled by law to attend them. Dark, dingy, cold schools with limited teaching equipment invariably mean a low, retarded level of education. Imagine trying to teach geography, for example, without a map to hang in front of your class. Scores of teachers are trying to do it.”
Winston Davies, secretary of the Ontario Public School Men Teachers’ Federation, added: “I’m
afraid a great many trustees have the idea that one desk for each pupil and one pail to catch the drips from each leak in the roof make a fully equipped school.”
J. F. Watkin, school inspector for Drumheller district, Alta., declares in the most recent Alberta Department of Education report: “There is no
school division in the province where the buildings are rated adequate for present needs.”
Leonard A. Turcotte, general superintendent of the corporation of Catholic teachers of Quebec, commented last February: “Disgraceful conditions exist in more than ninety per cent of Quebec schools. There has been much improvement in the last two or three years in urban schools, but it is only a speck on the over-all picture. Conditions in most rural schools are as primitive as they were 30 and 40 years ago.”
J. M. Paton, director of Quebec’s association of Protestant teachers, added: “School conditions in
districts like Gatineau, the Ottawa Valley and Gaspé are actually unbelievable. We have been doing a lot of worrying about slum districts in cities. It would not be exaggerating to call our rural education setup the biggest, dirtiest and most backward slum of all.”
When a new school was opened at Whitney, Ont., two years ago, Inspector H. H. Loucks declared: “We can’t expect anything but isms when children grow up in the depressing environments of obsolete schools, like so many rural ones are. In public schools we have two systems—the urban, where children have everything in the way of new buildings and equipment; and the rural, where they have the world’s worst. We talk about equality of opportunity There isn’t such a thing between urban and rural school pupils.”
But Canada’s urban schools have had just as much withering criticism heaped upon them of late as the rural ones.
Four years ago the Canadian Education Association’s national committee for school health research published its report of a survey which covered ninety per cent of Canada’s elementary schools and seventy-five per cent of secondary schools. Postwar school building has resulted in considerable
improvements since then, but coverage of the survey was so broad it is still regarded as a fair guide to school conditions. There was no separate report on urban schools, but there was for schools of four rooms or larger, and most schools of this size are in urban localities.
In 1947 more than six per cent of these large schools still had no artificial lighting; four per cent were still heated by classroom stoves; scores still had outdoor toilets; seventeen per cent “seldom or never” tested the water supply; three per cent provided drinking water only in an open pail.
The CEA committee summed up: “Pupils cannot be expected to practice health habits taught when environmental factors in the schools are the antithesis of the teaching ... It would be ridiculous to think of functional health teaching in many schools where sanitary conditions are actually a menace to health.”
At about the same time Inspector Loucks was damning our rural schools, a survey report released in Winnipeg denounced its schools in language just as bitter as any used against a back-concession little red schoolhouse. Winnipeg called in a team of educationists from the University of Chicago to give an unbiased
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report on the city schools. The report left more red ears around Winnipeg than any Portage Avenue blizzard had ever done.
Pointing out that 14 of Winnipeg’s 62 public schools were more than 45 years old the survey team declared frankly they were far beyond repair and should be razed. “All these buildings are hazards to the general welfare of pupils and teachers who are housed therein . . . Serious fire and panic hazards exist which cannot be eliminated . . . The effect on the physical, mental and aesthetic development of the children (approximately 6,000) who are housed therein during the formative period of their lives is a definite obstacle to good education . . .” Eight other Winnipeg schools more than 40 years old were condemned almost as harshly. Classrooms were overcrowded. Most seating was dark in color, unnecessarily absorbing light. Of playgrounds: “Not a school site
in Winnipeg has the area required for a modern school.” Thirty per cent of Winnipeg teachers complained their classroom lighting was poor, causing student eyestrain. Of libraries: “Reading and reference material is seriously lacking.” Teaching aids: “Reports
reveal unsatisfactory conditions indeed” (only about one quarter of all rooms were well supplied with wall maps). Toilet and drinking facilities in many schools were inadequate.
The survey team’s summing up: “Try as earnestly as they may, teachers cannot fully compensate for the substandard learning environment of outmoded school buildings, restricted school grounds and antiquated equipment.”
This was Winnipeg, Canada’s fourth largest city, in the fall of 1948.
Two-and-a-half years later one fifth of Winnipeg’s school children are still attending those 14 decrepid downtown schools. Winnipeg has been so busy building new schools for its soaring student population on the city’s outskirts that the best it has been able to do is put a bit of new ventilation, plumbing and heating equipment into two of the oldest relics. Not a single alteration has been made to the other 12.
Last year at Cooksville, Ont., 300 angry ratepayers converged on a school trustees meeting and demanded so loudly that something be done about their outmoded, 29-year-old, 11-classroom school that a trustee in desperation shut them up by rising and singing God Save the King and declaring the meeting adjourned. Ratepayers complained the school had been overcrowded for six years, yet nothing had been done except to improvise three added classrooms in the basement and move grade one pupils out to a nearby Orange Hall so cold that children frequently had to wear overcoats at their desks. Mothers protested that windows of the emergency basement rooms were covered with metal grilles and in a fire the children would have little chance of escape. There were still only the three original drinking fountains for a school enrollment which in 10 years had tripled to 425. Because of lineups at the fountains many students were carrying pop to school to drink. “And the roof leaks like a screen door!” shouted one mother.
Cooksville’s board is now drawing up plans for a new four-room addition to the school.
Numerous medical health officers and educationists have said that the most serious single deficiency in Crna-
dian schools is their lighting. A plea for better lighting was the first of nine recommendations made by the CEA’s national committee for school health research.
The CEA discovered no artificial lighting existed in eighty per cent of one-room schools, in half of the tworoom schools and one third of threeroom schools. In only about half the remaining schools which had artificial lighting did the intensity come up to 15 foot-candles, regarded as the absolute minimum for safe classroom lighting.
Inspector B. Warkentin, of Mani-
toba, describing the 85 schools of his district 75 miles east of Winnipeg, reported recently: “Every inspector
should be furnished with a light meter. Only by repeated demonstration can trustees be convinced that lighting in their schools is causing eyestrain and eventual loss of eyesight.”
In 1947 the great majority of Canada’s one-room schools were heated by stoves. Quite commonly stove heat is inadequate in severe weather and schools must close. Reporting on rural areas of Manitoba in 1949, Inspector W. S. Patterson said: “Academic
standards in many districts are low. This is the result of inexperienced teachers and the loss of time in winter months from unsatisfactory heating.” A teacher in eastern Ontario recently appealed to Mrs. Helen M. Ward, executive secretary of the Federation of Women Teachers’ Associations of Ontario, for support in her pleas for improved heating of her school. “The average temperatures for November were 52 degrees at 9 a.m., 54 degrees each noon,” she wrote. “I wear woolen underhose and heavy cotton overhose. My feet are still cold.
When asked recently about fire hazards in Quebec rural schools Professor Turcotte declared cynically: “The places never get hot enough for a fire. Recently I toured rural schools and the indoor temperature in at least ninety per cent of them was not higher than 50 degrees. .. In many places I found pupils wearing coats, hats and even mittens in class. Frequently the breath of teachers and students could be seen in the air. I found many schools with stoves that had to be stoked with branches and wood refuse gathered by students on their way to school. Lack of heating is one important reason why educational standards are so consistently low in rural areas. Since last September about a thousand rural female teachers have quit their jobs in Quebec because of the poor heating in their schools. If teachers cannot stand it, how can we expect children to?”
“Bigger Hypocrite Than Goebbels“
Professor J. E. Dolan, leading Montreal educationist, feels that health and morale of students are being irreparably damaged by Quebec school conditions, especially in rural zones where heating and lighting are poor and general conditions unsanitary and depressing. He thinks these conditions have already set the teaching profession back fifty years by driving out many of its best members and frightening off potentially good teacher material.
The most contradictory feature of Canada’s education system is the stress placed on health and sanitation in textbooks, and the utter lack of sanitation safeguards in thousands of schools.
An Ottawa Valley teacher says: “The biggest requirement of a rural school teacher is hypocrisy. Every time I teach a lesson in health and talk about the importance of sanitary habits I feel I’m a bigger hypocrite that Goebbels ever was. The department orders us to put more and more emphasis on health teaching. The trustees give us schools which break every health rule ever written.”
School Inspector C. W. Crowell, of the Yarmouth and Digby areas of Nova Scotia, recently arranged for the purchase of paper drinking cups in large quantities so that small schools could obtain them cheaply and scrap their disease-spreading pails and dippers. Many sections took advantage of the opportunity but in his annual report Crowell had to add: “However, sani-
tary drinking cups are still thought unnecessary in far too many sections.”
The Dentist Was Annoyed
About 7,500 Quebec schools have no washing facilities but the pump in the yard in summer and a bucket of water in a corner in winter.
In thousands of small schools, equipment consists of little more than a shaky desk for each pupil, a couple of square yards of blackboard space and maybe a tattered wall map or two. Even the maps are missing in many. When the Canadian Teachers’ Federation asked 435 rural teachers about their school equipment in 1949, more than seventy replied they had no globes. At a time in which the global concept of geography is essential for an understanding of world problems about 3,200 teachers all over the country are still forced to rely on the old-fashioned apple or football method of putting the lesson across. And 400 schools, according to this survey, haven’t a single wall map.
Recently a dentist making a tour of Ontario rural schools was annoyed to s.e prominently displayed in many of
the schools a large wall map distributed as advertising by a chocolate bar firm. While the dentist warned of the dental hazards in candy, the map, frequently on the wall behind him, urged in large type that children eat plenty of “the best milk chocolate made.” When he complained and suggested teachers destroy the map, many replied: “I
couldn’t do that, it’s the only map I have.”
Quebec’s able Professor Turcotte recently tried to get an Ottawa Valley school board to spend some money on maps and a library. “I’ll always remember the angry roar that greeted this outrageous proposal,” he says. “One trustee shouted that when he went to school he didn’t have any such ‘foolish, dangerous, modern contraptions and he got by all right (he only went to school for three years) and that students of today certainly didn’t need them either. To a man his fellow trustees agreed.”
Most essential and frequently most neglected item of equipment is the school library. In the Canadian Teachers’ Federation 1949 survey, five per cent of teachers replied their schools had no supplementary reading material to augment textbooks, and nearly one quarter described their libraries as poor and of little value.
In 1948 the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union tested the reading speed, accuracy and comprehension of 8,000 urban pupils. They reported that reading ability of Nova Scotia children “is consistently and appreciably below the American norms for the test used.” Many groups were retarded as much as a year and a half. One of the reasons: “Teachers are seriously handicapped by the lack of supplementary reading materials and libraries.”
Why are thousands of Canadian schools little better than hermits’ shacks?
The school to a large degree reflects the attitude of the community toward education. “Provincial departments and school trustees cannot provide better school buildings than the public is ready to demand and support,” says Dr. L. W. Shaw, Deputy Minister of Education for Prince Edward Island
and president of the Canadian Education Association.
“Municipalities can have better schools as soon as they decide they want them,” Nora Hodgins, secretary of the Ontario Teachers’ Federation, says. “In many municipalities it is not going to cost the area a great deal more to have a new well-equipped school than to carry on with the old one. In rural areas where the need is greatest Ontario’s provincial grants will take care of up to ninety-two per cent of a new school’s cost.”
Grant systems vary province to province, but in most the grants to assist in school construction are determined by the area’s total assessment. The poorer the area, the more assistance it gets. Usual procedure is for the school area authority to raise the needed capital by a debenture issue, then collect its grant year by year to help pay off the debt.
The little community of Benny, 40 miles northwest of Sudbury, Ont., had been sending its 20 school children for years to a shaky run-down frame school which in 1949 was officially valued at $345. Benny needed a new school, but with a total assessment of under $5,000, how could a new school be financed. In 1950 Benny investigated the provincial grants for new school construction and made a startling discovery. Today Benny has a smacking new $6,000 school. The province is paying all but ten per cent of its cost.
At Boylston, in northeastern Nova Scotia, women of the community solved part of the taxation problem which resulted from erection of a new school by raising more than $2,000 with suppers, sales and concerts. And at Saulnierville, in southwestern Nova Scotia, cost of a new eight-room school was cut by one third when ratepayers donated lumber from their winter’s cut and turned up with hammers and saws to provide hundreds of days of free labor.
In Truro the Kiwanis Club raised funds and presented radios to six small district schools so that the pupils could take advantage of educational broadcasts.
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But probably British Columbia affords the strongest proof that our shamefully antiquated schools can be eliminated just as soon as we are prepared to admit the need.
At the end of the war Education Minister Dr. George Weir appointed Dr. Max Cameron, a frail delicate professor of education at University of British Columbia, to look over the province’s schools, tell the government what was wrong, and why. Cameron pulled no punches, spoke bluntly, made enemies, and the now-famous Cameron Report set off an aggressive program of school overhauling that has reached into every corner of the province.
New Cornerstones Every Day
The report was a blistering indictment. Cameron recommended, for efficiency and economy, that B. C.’s 649 scattered school districts be reorganized into 74. He urged that education costs, especially the cost of new schools, be shifted much more heavily to the province. And the legislature, shaken by the school conditions Cameron described, adopted all his important recommendations into a new school policy.
Instead of paying a third of school costs as formerly, the province now chips in about seventy per cent. The enlargement of school districts has also tended to disperse costs. Under this everybody - help - the - other - fellow scheme, B. C. has been knocking down and rebuilding its old schools so fast that the minister of education has had time to do little more than run around the province and officiate at opening ceremonies.
It is costing a lot of cash, but British Columbia saw the need and isn’t complaining. The province is spending about 150 times as much per year on schools as it did before the war. The bill for new buildings in the past two and a half years has hit $40 millions. A department of education inspector estimates that eighty per cent of B. C. children are now attending either new or extensively renovated schools.
Nineteen Pupils, One Teacher
Does money spent on schools really pay in the form of better-educated children? Arvida, the Aluminum Company of Canada’s smelter town in eastern Quebec, has the answer to that.
Arvida schools have a wealthy godfather in the Aluminum Company which lavishes on them everything they want, and then a bit more. Whereas the average town of Arvida’s size (number of pupils: 2,900) has about
seven schools, Arvida has 18. Whereas the average strives to keep school classes down to 40 pupils per teacher, Arvida has a teacher for every 19 pupils. As a result, marks obtained on examinations by Arvida students lead all other Quebec school districts, including those for cities like Montreal, all of which use the same exams. The age at which Arvida students graduate is lower than anywhere else in the province; the percentage of Arvida failures is six per cent per class, the Quebec average ten per cent. Arvida High School, which is one of Canada’s model schools, uses reading and arithmetic tests standardized on thousands of students throughout Canada and the U. S. These tests show that the average Arvida class is one to two years farther advanced than corresponding classes throughout the rest of the continent.
So that’s what happens when children are given modern and wellequipped schools.