Rural and Northern Education

Plan to Strengthen Rural and Northern Education

From April to June 2017, the government hosted a provincewide engagement to seek input from parents, students, communities, school boards and municipalities on how to strengthen education in rural and Northern communities. Input was also gathered through an online survey and email submissions.

Based on the feedback received, and in order to take immediate action, the province has developed a Plan to Strengthen Rural and Northern Education. Beginning in September 2017, the ministry will further support students and communities through enhanced funding and revised planning guidelines that will address the unique needs of rural and Northern communities.

At A Glance: Support for Rural and Northern Students

In 2017-18, as part of the Plan to Strengthen Rural and Northern Education, students will benefit from a variety of measures including:

  • $20 million of additional funding through the new Rural and Northern Education Fund (RNEF) to support underutilized schools by enhancing student transportation options and improving learning experiences through investments in technology.  
  • Supplementary funding of $1.2 million to encourage school boards to share space to maintain a presence in communities and enhance student learning.
  • A strengthened Pupil Accommodation Review Guideline (PARG) for all school boards, particularly for communities with one school.

Existing supports for rural and Northern education include:

  • Enhanced special education funding for Northern Ontario: $22 million for special education funding for Northern Ontario school boards;
  • Broadband expansion: $90 million to ensure all schools have access to 1 Mb/second per student (over the next 4 years);
  • Specialist High Skills Major (SHSM) expansion: Plan to expand participation in SHSM by 10 per cent – opportunity to put emphasis on expansion of Agriculture SHSMs in rural schools;
  • Community Hubs demonstration program: New CHD program to support and maintain a number of publicly owned surplus properties;
  • Joint use seed funding: Operating funding to support the development of a joint-use school project;
  • Transportation engagement: Multi-stakeholder engagement will launch this fall to inform a renewed vision for student transportation;
  • The School Foundation Grant, which provides funding for principals, vice-principals, office support staff and office supplies, recognizes that remote schools require a higher level of funding support than other schools;
  • The School Operations and Renewal Grant, which supports the costs of operating, maintaining and repairing school facilities, recognizes that remote schools require additional funding to maintain underutilized space;
  • The Geographic Circumstances Grant, which provides higher levels of teacher staffing support for remote schools and provides additional funding to recognize the additional costs in small, disperse and remote boards; and
  • The Differentiated Special Education Needs Amount of the Special Education Grant, which recognizes the need for higher levels of funding for small, disperse and remote boards.

School Consolidations and Joint-Use Opportunities

School boards engage with communities to find the best path forward to maintain the best programming options for students. In some cases, this involves school consolidations, which aim to ensure that students are provided with the best possible classroom experience. This allows boards to offer a more diverse range of programs and services to students. In other cases, two or more school boards can work together to share space in one building which may broaden the range of programs and services available to students.

School consolidations and the shared use of school facilities, can bring many benefits including:

  • Improved facilities
  • Broader programming
  • More extra-curricular activities, including sports teams
  • Better support for student achievement, well-being and equity
  • Greater social opportunities

The Ministry of Education committed $600,000 for the 2016-17 school year to assist school boards in pursuing joint-use school opportunities between boards. As part of the Plan to Strengthen Education in Rural and Northern Ontario, supplemental funding of $1.2 million was announced to assist school boards in pursuing joint-use opportunities and managing joint-use school capital projects for the 2017-18 school year.

School Consolidation Experience Studies

In 2015 and 2016, independent and in-depth case studies were undertaken to help understand the impact of school consolidations and reorganizations.

Overall, it was found that:

  • The initial fears of individuals about consolidations/reorganizations were allayed when the new schools were also vibrant and engaged communities.
  • Parents, students and staff described many benefits of the consolidated schools, particularly around expanded academic programming and more extracurricular opportunities.
  • Students adapted quickly to their new environment.

An overview – available in both PDF and HTML – explains the first three studies, their context and process, as well as their findings. The fourth study is summarized separately in another document – also available in both PDF and HTML.

Community Hubs

Schools are natural community hubs that bring together a range of needed services under one roof to better serve their communities. One way that school boards can use excess space in viable schools is to partner with community organizations. The Province is providing nearly $90 million to support boards in maximizing the use of school space by community partners and the public.

In October 2016, $50 million was announced to support retrofits of available school space for use by new community partners, or improve accessibility for schools to enable community use.In June 2017, the ministry announced that it will continue to provide $50 million in 2017-18 to support retrofits and improve accessibility to promote additional community hubs.

In the event that an original school location that housed community partnerships is closed or sold, capital funding will be available for replacement space for eligible community partners.

Supported by new rules for surplus property, surplus schools have also been identified as potential community hubs. In addition, the new Surplus Property Transition Initiative will provide support to maintain select surplus schools for up to 18 months to give proponents the time to develop plans for community hubs.

The ministry, working with partner ministries and key stakeholders will also be revising the Community Planning and Partnership Guideline (CPPG) in order to encourage ongoing communication between school boards and community partners.

Pupil Accommodation Reviews

To make an informed decision about changes to student accommodations, school boards engage in what is called a pupil accommodation review (PAR).

During such a review, school boards will typically identify a list of schools being considered for accommodation changes. It is important to note that a school’s inclusion on this list does not indicate that a school will be closed or consolidated. Rather, the list is intended to support discussions and consultations with the community about the best path forward to support local students.

There are guidelines set by the ministry that provide a minimum standard that school boards must meet when creating their local accommodation review policies. The Pupil Accommodation Review Guideline (PARG) was last updated in 2015 to increase transparency and introduce new requirements for boards to consult with municipal and community organizations, providing an opportunity to discuss potential impacts to local communities and economies.

As part of the Plan to Strengthen Education in Rural and Northern Ontario, the province has committed to revising the pupil accommodation review guidelines, which includes:

  • Working with partner ministries and key stakeholders (including school boards and municipalities) to revise the PARG to require longer timelines, more options, increased student voice and an enhanced role for the trustees and municipalities.
  • Working with ministries, as appropriate, to explore potential criteria or circumstances that could inform which communities should be served by at least one school.
  • Providing a new toolkit and resources to school boards to standardize and validate data.
  • Providing templates for community partners to engage school boards.

School boards will be directed not to initiate any new PARs until the revised PARG is complete. Exceptions will be provided for PARs that are required to support a joint-use school initiative. For PARs that are underway prior to today, trustees may either continue with the PAR process initiated under its existing PAR policy or wait until the ministry releases the revised PARG to continue.

Additional information related to pupil accommodation reviews is available, including an FAQ, description of administrative reviews, and a guide to pupil accommodation reviews, which describes what happens when a school board is considering a school closure or consolidation.