The importance of our schools: engagement and partnership vital

Children at Dalhousie Parents Day Care, an organization that partners with St. Anthony School to build closer community ties.

Children at Dalhousie Parents Day Care, an organization that partners with St. Anthony School to build closer community ties.

by Paul McGuire

Community schools that are truly integrated as a partner into the wider neighbourhood are rare. However, they are increasingly important as more community agencies try to work together to solve complex social problems.

Educational institutions often stand apart from these cooperative efforts, mainly because they still see themselves as silos or islands of instruction not to be sullied by outside influences.

It does not have to be this way, and it would be heartening to see a shift away from the silo approach to education in our society.

There is no question that the connection between a school and its surrounding community is vital.

Really, the two should be inseparable, both working together to make a stronger union and a better community.

As a principal, I have always tried to do this, especially in the last school I worked in.

St. Anthony School in Little Italy serves a diverse population of new Canadians from countries around the world.

Our staff believes strongly that we need to reach out to our community so that we can do a better job of serving our families.

Over time, we established strong ties with organizations like Somerset West Community Health Centre,

Rec LINK (a wonderful small organization that links families up to recreation opportunities for their kids) and the Dalhousie Parents Day Care, a community organization that resides in the basement of the school and, until recently, had office space in the school.

We also had strong ties with the local Italian community, who raised thousands of dollars for playground renewal and other projects. We even had a great partnership with a local store called The Bike Dump. Dave, the owner of this store, supplied cheap or free bikes to our kids every year and last year even found us a mechanic to fix all the bikes before we handed them out to our kids.

These are just a few of the many partnerships we worked on over the years. We also tried to make the school as open as possible to all parents. This was really important as many parents come from countries where positive relationships between families and institutions were not encouraged.

Unfortunately, this can all change very quickly. In the past few months, community agencies have lost office space in the school. There is little communication between Somerset West Community Health Centre and the school. The doors of the school are locked, keeping the parents away from the building. The social media accounts—Twitter and Facebook—have fallen silent. The school, in essence, is retreating in upon itself.

This is not what should be happening. Community schools should encourage partnerships with the agencies that support their families. Surplus space should be used to offer additional services to the community.

There is space in the school for adult literacy classes, even space for a computer room for parents who do not have access to computers or wifi. These ideas have been discussed, but were never implemented.

It is important to remember that all schools are ultimately the property of the Province of Ontario and they all need to be utilized to serve the community in the best way possible.

The current trend away from the community is distressing and it shows a complete misunderstanding of the role a school should play within its community.

This situation does not have to continue. Ultimately, the Ottawa Catholic School Board can push back against this trend and become more involved in making the local community its top priority. To ignore the importance of St. Anthony School to the surrounding community risks losing an important community asset.

Schools should be the heart of the community. It is sad when people ignore or just don’t understand the importance of this relationship.

I hope this will change in the future and that new principals will understand that schools do not and cannot exist in isolation.

To offer an excellent education for our students, we need to learn to be a part of the community.

Are there ways that the community could reach out to bridge the current gap? Can the Catholic School Board begin to see itself as a vital partner in Dalhousie? Only time will tell.

This article originally appeared in Paul McGuire’s blog, “Whole-Hearted”: paulmcguire1.com.