School Desert

Will Downtown Kingston become a School Desert?

It is a difficult task to keep a strong downtown in a mid-sized city, since it is all too easy for a community’s shopping, cultural and community facilities to spin out to suburban shopping malls, big-box stores and power centres. Waterloo professor Pierre Filion noted that Kingston has fared better than most mid-sized cities because it has a historic downtown that is kept lively year around by adjacent historic neighbourhoods, tourists in the summer and students in the winter.

Kingston’s official plan calls for further intensification of the downtown to reduce the costs of suburban sprawl, maintain the vibrancy of the region’s core and become Canada’s most sustainable city. The municipal government has made strategic investments in the Market Square, Grand Theatre and K-Rock Centre to pursue these goals, but the downtown neighbourhoods now face the most severe threat in decades. Surprisingly, this threat does not come from closing the downtown cinemas or the Kingston Penitentiary. Our local school boards are now poised to close every school in the downtown area, which would be a far more serious blow.

A good education system is a strong foundation for a competitive city in the knowledge economy of the 21st century. Kingston has Canada’s most highly educated work-force and now boasts three post-secondary institutions, several teaching hospitals and an excellent school system. These excellent public institutions set in walkable downtown neighbourhoods make Kingston an attractive destination for talent. My family moved here from Boston because although that city has some of the world’s best private universities, its public school system is a mess and has been deserted by middle-class families. If you want to have kids, you leave Boston for the suburbs with decent public schools. We were happy to return to our Canadian roots in Kingston, a vibrant city with excellent downtown schools such as KCVI, Ontario’s first secondary school and still one of its best.

So I was surprised to find that the Limestone District School Board is considering a proposal to close KCVI to consolidate enrolment in its three high schools within the old city limits. It was even more alarming to find that the LDSB was also considering proposals to close downtown elementary schools and the Algonquin and Lakeshore District Catholic School Board will soon be starting a similar process for its inner-city schools.

After a bit of research, I discovered that the school boards have already closed seven downtown schools in recent decades, more than the rest of the city combined:

 Macdonald Public School (now TV studios);

Robert Meek PS (a youth centre)

Notre Dame high school (Central Library)

St. Mary's CS (arts academy)

St. John's CS (private school)

Victoria PS (Queen’s business school)           

Wellington Street PS (apartments).

Most of these schools were solidly built and have been converted to other uses; many could have been repaired and remained in use as schools if enough students remained.

There are not many public schools left in the downtown area, and those that remain are the hearts of the neighbourhoods. So it is devastating news to these communities that all the remaining schools are targeted for closure. The members of Save Kingston City Schools who are monitoring the situation find that the preferred options in staff reports and committee discussions include closing KCVI, Frontenac PS and Central PS (which includes Sydenham PS). The Catholic Board’s process will consider closing St. Patrick’s CS.

These proposals would create a “school desert” in the area south of Concession/Stephen Streets and east of Albert Street. This is the oldest part of the City of Kingston and still home to almost 10,000 people according to the July 2006 census, taken when most undergraduates are not in town. These schools also serve three of the region’s four largest employers – KGH, Hotel Dieu and Queen’s. Working families enroll their children at these downtown schools, dropping the kids off on the way to work and picking them up after extracurricular activities.

It is almost inconceivable that an urban population this large would be left without any public schools. Unfortunately, the decisions are being made by several different school board committees that are focused upon closing schools to reduce operating costs and repairs. Nobody is considering the bigger picture or the cumulative impacts of closing so many schools in the inner city.

Although the various school boards must adjust their building portfolios to meet changing enrolment, it cannot be good public policy to close every downtown school. It would become very difficult to convince families with children to move into these neighbourhoods in the future and more single-family homes would be converted to rental units. Kingston’s downtown would lose business and the other employers would lose valuable services. This “school desert” certainly works directly against the City of Kingston’s plans to create a sustainable community and intensify the downtown area.

The public schools have failed in many American inner cities, requiring tremendous efforts to rebuild confidence in the public education system and downtown neighbourhoods. In contrast, the Kingston schools being closed are among the most academically successful schools in the region and magnets for families within the city and beyond.

It is difficult to understand why this competitive advantage should be demolished.

Luckily, it is not too late.

There is still time for public input into the school board processes. We can develop options to keep all three inner-city high schools open by creating innovative education programs and partnerships with other organizations. In other cities, there are wonderful examples of schools combined with libraries, housing, seniors’ centres, health clinics, daycares and studio space. The remaining schools can become important multi-service hubs for the downtown neighbourhoods and employees.

The alternative is a decline in the quality of life in Kingston’s downtown area.

David Gordon is Director of the Queen’s School of Urban and Regional Planning and co-author of Planning Canadian Communities. His daughter is finishing Grade 8 in Calvin Park Public School and hopes to attend KCVI next year.