Building Stronger Communities – School Boards Should be More Involved

Last week there was a great announcement in our school neighbourhood. The City of Ottawa, Ottawa Community Housing and surprisingly, the French Public School Board of Eastern Ontario have joined together to develop a 7-acre piece of land right in the heart of Ottawa. The project will include affordable housing, a new French public school, single-family homes, and businesses to support the new community. The development has the potential to stretch into a 15-acre project if an additional piece of land adjacent to this section can be brought in.

The new development is called Gladstone Village and it has the potential to transform this neighbourhood in some really important ways. In my opinion, the most significant aspect will be the addition of good, affordable housing for families that live in this community.

I have worked in this community for three years as a principal of a local school and now as a community volunteer.

One of the saddest parts of my job as a principal was to say goodbye to families who could no longer afford to live in this wonderful community. Housing prices have been going up steadily in the area, forcing lower income families to move to other parts of the city that generally are not as well set up to offer important social services to these families.

Hopefully, with the building of Gladstone Villiage, this trend can be reversed.

What is especially gratifying is to see a public school board take an active role in the partnership that will construct the new village. This is unusual. School boards traditionally do not get overly involved in community development. As traditional institutions, they see their primary role as educators of children, not community developers.

The French Public Board is showing that things can change and school boards can take an active role in developing and enriching the communities that surround them. What school boards will find once they start looking to get more involved is that there are lots of organizations out there that would love to work with them.

While I was principal of St. Anthony School – close to the new village – we developed some incredible partnerships with organizations like the Aviva Community Fund, TD Friends of the Environment, (@TDFEF), Evergreen Canada, the City of Ottawa and the wonderful local Italian community. Together, these groups helped us to raise over $165,000.00 in less than two years to transform our dilapidated school yard.

the new yard – the shrubs, fencing, grass and stone paving are all part of the renovation 

Evergreen consulted all the students and developed the first plan for the yard. The Italian community got interested and held a huge fundraising dinner for the school – over 400 people attended and we made over $20,000 in one night. We entered the Aviva Community Fund competition and with the help of a huge on-line community, won $100,000. The Ottawa Community Foundation also made a very significant contribution allowing us to complete the renovation of the yard.

Along with Gladstone Village, this is a great example of partners coming together to reshape and build a new community.

Education institutions like our school and the Eastern Ontario French Public Board illustrate the importance of reaching out into the community to create something better for our families.

It is no longer acceptable to sit back and wait for the students to show up. This passive approach misses many opportunities to engage actively in the community.

We could have done more. We could have opened adult literacy classes for parents at night or during the day so that they could stay close to their children. We could have constructed a computer room with free wifi so that parents could access the internet – something many of them could not do from their homes. We could have offered space in our building for community agencies to connect more readily with the families they served.

All of these ideas were discussed and unfortunately, none were ever implemented.

That is too bad. This has to change.

School Boards need to start to realize that their buildings do not belong to them, they are community assets that need to be shared. The community can not be blocked out of these spaces, they need to be welcomed in. Education really needs to become public in a much wider sense. To ignore our larger public responsibility is to retreat back into the 19th century – we simply can’t do that.

Congratulations to the Conseil des écoles publiques de l’Est de l’Ontario.

 

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Asphalt to Oasis – the drive to transform a schoolyard

mural project painted earlier this year by the students of St. Anthony
mural project painted earlier this year by the students of St. Anthony

 

St. Anthony Catholic School today, just as at its beginnings as the Dante Academy, is a Catholic school that serves a high proportion of children from immigrant families living in the Somerset Street West area of Ottawa.

 

This is a wonderful school community with students and parents from Asia, Latin America and Africa. The combination of different languages and cultures makes for a vibrant and exciting atmosphere. It is a true joy to work here at St. Anthony.

St. Anthony School was founded as the Dante Academy in 1925. On June 8, the Ottawa Citizen reported on the official opening of the school as follows: “The official opening of the Dante Separate School for Italian children took place yesterday morning, and a special Mass, honoured by the presence of Monsignor L.N. Campeau, representing the Archbishop, was celebrated by Rev. Father L. Larocque at the Church of St. Anthony…” It is very interesting to note that the Dominion horticulturalist, Mr. W. T. Macoun, provided ‘a generous donation of trees’ to celebrate the opening of the school.

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This began a long history of establishing a green oasis in the center of Somerset West. In 1998, the school, along with dozens of others, applied to win the “Ugliest Schoolyard Contest,” sponsored by Earth Day Ottawa-Carleton, the Canadian Biodiversity Institute and Nortel Networks. St. Anthony won the contest, which was held to encourage schools to take positive environmental action. By winning the contest, St. Anthony received $5,000 to help plant trees and make the schoolyard greener.  Additional awards were received from the City of Ottawa, the Arbour Foundation and the Canadian Wildlife Federation.

 

Now, 17 years later, the schoolyard is in need of assistance. Many of the trees planted in 1998 need a good deal of work to revive them. The yard is mostly made up of cracked concrete that is extremely dangerous in the months when it is not snow covered. This year alone there have been several injuries resulting in trips to the hospital for several students.

In response to this need, St. Anthony School has worked with Evergreen to develop a new concept for the yard. The concept plan, draw by Evergreen consultant Andrew Harvey, is based on extensive discussions with the students and staff of St. Anthony School.

concept plan drawn up by Evergreen
concept plan drawn up by Evergreen

 

The plan calls for the pulling up of much of the old pavement along with the planting of more trees and shrubs. Evergreen also designed the yard in such a way that students would have low-cost wooden structures to play on. Currently, there is no play structure on the yard.

 

This is an ambitious plan. In the fall, we took part in the Aviva Community Fund campaign – a national competition to raise the money to start work on the greening project. We competed with hundreds of projects across the country and came very close to making it into the finals. The campaign is still visible on their website: https://www.avivacommunityfund.org/ideas/acf19604

 

Now it is back to the drawing board. We are still totally committed to building our new yard and we are actively looking for new, inventive ways of raising money. St. Anthony’s Ladies Aid has been very helpful in their support of the project as has one of our local high schools.

St. Anthony is the community’s school and it will ultimately be the community that helps us continue to work of W.T. Macoun and Earth Day Ottawa-Carleton. As our slogan goes, we will turn our Asphalt into an Oasis!

 

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