Pictured: goats Coco and Jujube with students Annie and Sylas. Photo by Peter Stockland.
The Christian independent school that ignited controversy in Eastern Ontario last month is so rural that its students raise goats on the grounds as a class project.
Heritage Community Christian School (HCCS) isn’t just out in the sticks on County Road 28 northeast of Brockville, between Kingston and the Quebec border. It actually sticks out of what was surely an old hay field before the original public school was built a few generations ago to serve the hamlet of New Dublin.
Despite its pastoral position, however, HCCS generated regional headlines when its offer to buy a second space, an empty public school just down the road, was spurned by the Upper Canada District School Board. Its bid of $350,000 was ignored despite being $47,000 higher than the eventual sale price – and $60,000 above the published asking price only last August.
School principal Jennifer Feenstra, supported by her independent school board, called it out as discrimination and pondered legal action. The public-school board responded phlegmatically by trotting out a provision on its books that prohibits sale of its properties for use as “private” educational facilities. The scalding part was the prohibition on private educational use was crafted 15 years ago when HCCS was put through near-identical song and dance over its bid to buy its current school. The office of Board chairman John McAllister declined Convivium’s request for an interview and provided instead a prepared statement that he would not comment before the sale officially closes in December.
At the time in 2004, significant applied political pressure and some legal throat clearing, combined to convince the board of the day to back down and the sale of an empty school in an old hayfield was approved. As Cardus colleagues Brian Dijkema and David Hunt wrote in an op-ed in the Brockville Recorder and Times, the board’s resulting ban on sale to private schools violates the “fundamental right to freedom of association” enjoyed by all Canadians, including parents who want to send their kids to independent schools. (Convivium Editor-in-Chief Father Raymond de Souza also cheekily suggested the board’s recalcitrance to sell to a religious school might have something to do with over evaluation of its own sanctity).
Alas, background conversations with lawyers who’ve followed the case pretty closely indicate there’s little hope of legal recourse for the Heritage School administration and board. A human rights complaint seeking damages for discrimination seems, at this point anyway, pretty much a non-starter. Even if it were accepted as worthy of investigation, it would be a multi-year odyssey down a blind alley, with the strong risk of coming before a hearing panel packed with anti-Christian animus.
As for rumoured real estate shenanigans in the way the offers were treated, there’s no evidence of that because the Heritage School’s offer was never accepted. The board simply ignored it and was prepared to take the hit on the lower sale price. As one area real estate lawyer Convivium spoke with put it: “No offer. No contract. No action.”
That does leave political pressure, which local MPP Steve Clarke has hinted at indirectly with his push for a “line-by-line audit” of the Upper Canada District School Board. In a written statement to Convivium, Clarke said the questions raised by the refusal to consider the Heritage Community school’s bid reinforce the need for the Board to accept an independent audit funded by the provincial government.
“A third-party, line-by-line review under the Audit and Accountability Fund would do more than review the board’s spending to identify administrative and operating efficiencies. It would also measure the Upper Canada board against best practices in other Ontario school boards. Such comparisons would, for example, ensure that when opportunities to sell surplus property arise, the board is receiving maximum value for the education system and taxpayers. Protecting what matters most means directing every dollar possible to the classroom,” wrote Clarke, who is also municipal affairs minister in the Ford government.
Yet for Deani Van Pelt, president of the Edvance Christian Schools Association, what moves the HCCS imbroglio beyond a local board shemozzle over pedagogical turf protection and trustee accountability for tax dollars is the foundational issue of excellence in education. Whatever other motives the local board had for denying the sale of a disused rural school, Van Pelt says charitably, its refusal reflects a failure of understanding.
“It’s a misunderstanding of what public education is,” she says. “Public education can happen when a wide diversity of associations provide education. The real question is whether we as a society are hungry to provide our children with the best education possible. If we become really animated by a deep desire to do that, we’ll lift our gaze and become open to alternatives that are already happening in other educational jurisdictions.”
In fact, Van Pelt says the real risk embodied in the Upper Canada board’s dog-in-a-manger attitude toward its surplus properties carries provincial, national, and even continental consequences. Outside of the Western Canadian provinces and to some extent Quebec, she says, North American jurisdictions are falling behind globally when it comes to effective and efficient educational funding.
“A lot of Canada, especially Ontario, and a large part of the U.S. is out of step with the rest of the democratic world in how education is designed and delivered, and the way good education happens,” says Van Pelt, who is also a senior fellow at Cardus.
“In the vast majority of democracies across the world, education is regulated and funded by the government, but it isn’t necessarily delivered by the government. There is a wide variety of partners involved in the delivery, and the 1,300 or more independent schools in Ontario represent what can happen outside the framework of government funding, regulating and delivering good education,” she adds.
Included in that number, she stresses, is the little school in the former hayfield where the kids raise goats outside New Dublin, i.e., Heritage Community Christian School. Visit the school and it’s easy to see why Van Pelt has come away with that impression. For its orderly ebullient atmosphere alone, if HCCS were on any major urban boulevard or cul de sac, instead of County Road 28 in rural Eastern Ontario, it would have been media-swarmed as a centre of energetic educational innovation.
Step inside the door and one of the first things Principal Feenstra does – after picking up and cuddling one of her own children who attends the school – is highlight the way the physical structure has been reconfigured as well as possible to diminish traces of old-style assembly line pedagogy.
“Factory education,” Feenstra calls it, and if her face weren’t so open and cheerful, you’d expect her upper lip to curl. If she weren’t so deeply Christian, you’d call her a (metaphoric) fiend for hunting down and bringing home the best in educational practice.
“We sent four teachers to Finland for a week so that they could learn from the best school system in the world. We sent our staff to Atlanta, Georgia to visit the most amazing school I’ve ever seen. We sent board members/parents and a senior teacher to San Diego to learn about project-based learning at the most innovative schools around, not just because of their implementation of technology but for their approach to learning. For a teacher to see another teacher’s classroom, nothing can bring change like that,” Feenstra tells Convivium.
One of her most experienced teachers admits to teaching differently after the visit to Finland. A second has made a habit of marking every child’s work every night to ensure the students are getting the day’s instruction.
“If they did not get it today, she’s going to teach it in a different way tomorrow. That kind of approach to learning is what teachers will do when they’re inspired.”
A key to that, Feenstra says, is constant vigilance over performance gaps so that pupils don’t flounder privately and fail publicly. The principal herself keeps a chart in her office of every child’s reading ability up to Grade 4, checking in every two or three weeks, making sure no one is quietly and invisibly slipping backward. If evidence of confusion or a growing gap with other students, one-on-one teaching is available for the asking.
“We never want that gap to grow. We’re always trying to catch them up, get them as far as we can. That’s from (the trip to) Finland.”
This, it has to be stressed, is in a rural school with goats in the yard and a robotics lab in one of its classrooms, where parents pay tuition or kids get in on scholarships. Where, that is, money spent must be raised by the school itself not, Feenstra is somewhat fond of pointing out, where the benefits come from being part of a public board with 27,000 students, 79 schools, 4,200 staff and a budget of $340-million.
It’s also a school that’s seen its enrolment grown to about 135 students from 40 only five or six years ago, and up by 55-60 families over the last few years. That’s in stark contrast to declines in the public board where, Feenstra points out, some schools that were built for 300 to 400 students now have half that number of pupils. It’s borne out in the fact that, in addition to the school that HCCS was denied the chance to even bid on, the Upper Canada board put two more surplus schools on the block this past summer. Feenstra recently visited a so-called super school, which is an amalgamation of three previously closed schools, and discovered it had 152 students – barely more than Heritage Community Christian School.
“They're in a $13-million building that’s 15 years old. I thought ‘they are really scared.’ In (the public board’s) mind, they think the students here belong to them and that would give them the numbers they want.”
She and parents I spoke with scoff at the argument that HCCS has succeeded by “cherry picking” the best and most affluent students from the public system.
“It’s ludicrous,” says parent Brenda Glock. “To say this school is about kids coming from a bunch of privileged families is just ludicrous.”
Glock’s children – a son who graduated from Grade 8 last year and a daughter now in Grade 4 – are in HCCS because of what she describes as a horrific bullying of her two older boys in the public system. Glock says the child-on-child bullying was bad enough. Worse was the absolute refusal of the school to listen to her appeals for help, much less do anything about it. In fact, she says, when one of her kids took out a smart phone and began recording the bullying in progress, the school came down on the child for not respecting the bully’s privacy rights.
“It was injustice that brought us to HCCS,” Glock says. “I entrusted my children to these people and they let them down. In essence, they let us all down.”
The first visit to the community school “astounded” her, and her children have since flourished. Her daughter, given to shyness and a hatred of noise, gets ample peer and teacher support. At the same time, there’s an expectation of working to ability.
“She’s thriving. She loves to come to school. There’s a standard here that I didn’t see on the (public) side. My biggest regret was not starting the kids here from the get-go. The day we came here, my son who’d been through the bullying said, ‘Mommy, can I start tomorrow?’ There was finally relief.”
Rev. Daniel Zylstra, pastor at the Christian Reformed Church in nearby Athens and a former teacher, says the transformation from fearing school to loving it is common among the students and their families who find community at HCCS. It’s why parents have moved from as far away as deep southwestern Ontario so their children can attend.
“The children had been to five different schools. The mother drove all the way the way here praying ‘I hope I can get my kids in this school.' Her kids are here. And they’re very happy.”
Zylstra says among the myriad of problems afflicting public education, perhaps the most damaging is the breakdown of trust between administrators, teachers and parents. Schools can become battlegrounds between pedagogues and parents over the best interests of the children.
“There is a much more of an adversarial relationship between parents and teachers than there used to be. Parents will stick up for their kids no matter what, and teachers are left feeling isolated, without any backup. Here? There’s a reason we have community in the name.”
He is unapologetic about the Christian emphasis as well, but notes it is presented as an invitation, not a forced march. Parents of prospective students are left in no doubt about its ethos. But encouragement to Gospel conduct and way of life is extended through hospitality at church, through youth groups, through friendship. Brenda Glock agrees.
“You get the feeling some people think the school is about going around yelling Bible verses at the kids and hitting them with rulers. That couldn’t be more untrue. It’s a Christian community. People are welcome.”
For Alex Oosterhoff, who was the board chairman when HCCS had to fight to get its current school 15 years ago and now has grandchildren at the school, the mistake is believing that the public system is any less agenda-driven than Christian or other form of independent schooling might be.
“Sure, we have a purpose behind our education. But we also very much believe in a free society. We want the best education for the students here, and we want God as part of that. Are you telling me the public system is neutral when it rejects that?” Oosterhoff asks.
And that, Rev. Daniel Zylstra says, is what really matters in the Upper Canada District School Board’s refusal to even consider allowing HCCS to expand – indeed, binding itself to a regulation that prohibits a sale that would make that possible. There’s an inherent injustice, he says, born of an inability to see that both the public school system and independent schools are in the business of, as Deani Van Pelt says, satisfying the hunger for the best education possible.
“I’m not worried about Heritage Christian Community School. It will do fine. It is doing fine. What I’m concerned about is the overall injustice, and the inability to see that it is an injustice.”
To separate, one might say, the sheep from the goats.