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Schoolhouse thrives with only nine students, two teachers and one dog

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PRAWDA -- There are almost as many classrooms as kids at Reynolds Elementary School.

Only seven children attend full time in a school that could accommodate 100. That number is boosted to nine children every second day when the two kindergarten students are there.

Only seven students are expected to enrol come September.

Maintaining small class sizes certainly isn't an issue here.

The school, just off the Trans-Canada Highway west of Whiteshell Provincial Park, has four classrooms, a big library, a computer room and a decent-sized gym, not to mention an outdoor area that would be the envy of many schools. It had 84 students in the late '90s.

There are schools like Reynolds Elementary School scattered throughout southern and central Manitoba, schools that once had dozens of kids, schools that have long been the hub of their communities, the place to find a gym, a meeting room, a field.

Over the years they've become smaller, and smaller, and smaller, as their own grads move away in search of jobs, leaving behind fewer young adults to start families.

The NDP suddenly imposed a moratorium on closing schools in 2008, making it all but impossible to close schools where populations have dwindled below viability. When that moratorium came out of nowhere, there were 13 schools in Winnipeg and rural communities set to close in June of 2008 or 2009.

Since then, only two schools have closed in the only way Education Minister Nancy Allan will now allow them to close -- by parents voting with their feet.

Graysville School closed when the last handful of parents threw in the towel and agreed to bus their kids to Carman. Kenton School closed when the last few families opted for the bigger school down the road in Hamiota.

The Sunrise School Division and the RM of Reynolds are clinging to Reynolds Elementary, conducting public consultations and studies, turning over rocks to try to find ideas, however unlikely, that could bring more kids into the community.

People have suggested tax breaks for families putting their kids in the school, transferring government offices to the community on the assumption employees would move their families to Prawda, fiddling with catchment areas.

Trouble is, most of the ideas are impractical, and with schools of choice, no one can force a child to attend any particular school.

Members of the Reynolds parent council say there are other kids living in the catchment area, but they go to the bigger Sunrise school in Whitemouth, or the faith-based private school in Steinbach, or they're home-schooled, or they go 25 minutes down the Trans-Canada to Frontier's shiny new school in Falcon Beach.

There are mutterings about coffee parties held to sell the attractions of the Falcon school, which runs a handy bus right to the boundary to pick up kids from Reynolds' catchment area.

So how do you run a school when almost the entire building sits empty all day?

Wonderfully, it seems.

Starting with, how many city schools have their own dog?

Seriously, how many?

"This is Dakota -- she's a highway dog," laughed Reynolds principal Heidi Schubert as she introduced the bounding Lab cross that has the run of the school.

"We're very fortunate, none of the kids has allergies."

A highway dog, Schubert explained, is a puppy abandoned on the side of the road and left to fend for itself. Schubert took Dakota in two years ago, and she's thrived in the school.

At the end of the day, Dakota goes home with Schubert, who fell in love with the community so much that after two years as a teaching principal, she bought a house a stone's throw from the school.

The 28-year-old Schubert -- giggling kids spontaneously announced her age to visitors -- is a River East Collegiate grad who splits teaching duties with Heather Bodner.

The school had 84 back in the 1990s. They had four full-time teachers. There was talk about expanding the kindergarten-to-Grade-6 school to Grade 8.

But now?

"It's a lot of elderly people, and not so many young families with kids," Schubert said. "There's not a lot of jobs in the area. There's no garbage pickup, no sewer, no water."

Schubert expects Reynolds Elementary to be open again next fall, but whether it can still employ two full-time teachers and operate two classrooms for just seven kids -- that she can't predict.

Twice a week, Schubert drives into Winnipeg after school to work on her masters in rural education at the University of Manitoba. And she goes to other small schools to see how they make it work.

The province has provided funding to put daycares and other community uses in emptying schools, but there's no one this year willing to operate a facility, Schubert lamented.

She and Bodner have removed many desks from classrooms to make it less obvious no one occupies them.

"We've taken things out to make it less sad."

The Sunrise division has an itinerant music teacher who comes to Reynolds, and Schubert has worked the grants system to have a visiting artist.

"I'm not very artistic myself, so I'm very good at getting grants for art," she laughed. "We (also) have a grant from the Breakfast Club of Canada."

The students trek to Whitemouth School occasionally so the kids can play some team sports, and they rose to staging a Christmas pageant. That it is a Christmas pageant, and not a secular winter festival, is a selling point, said one parent.

Since her arrival, when Reynolds still had 30 children, Schubert has seen kids move to Falcon Beach School, whose enrolment rose by 15 kids over two years.

"Unfortunately, schools of choice is not always a good thing for small schools," she said.

This particular day, Bodner was at the dentist and there was a substitute, because the school must always have two adults present.

It was the in-between day for kindergarten, so Schubert had all seven children in French class, baking chocolate chip cookies.

Which, it goes without saying, drove Dakota nuts.

"She barks in French," said one boy.

The interdisciplinary approach Schubert takes, designed to touch various elements of the curriculum for all the grades involved, and to -- as the Department of Education would say, achieve positive learning outcomes -- is for the kids to read the recipe, identify ingredients, measure them, use math and follow instructions, all the while speaking French.

"It's basic French. They had three classes to practise," Schubert explained.

The substitute handled gym class, which consisted of robust activity in which each child bounced a basketball while playing tag. The rules seemed a little obscure, but at various points the person who was "it" had to take jump shots, then resume pursuit.

These Reynolds kids are definitely into recess.

"In our entire division, we have the nicest area," said Schubert.

There's a very large soccer field buried under snow and bounded by trees from which deer often emerge. Bears, too, but not as often, in fall and spring. Schubert keeps her eyes open.

The kids have built all kinds of snow forts and tunnels. There's even a raised platform for tobogganing, and -- how many schools can claim this? -- a zip line. "There's an outdoor rink (nearby) -- we take the kids skating.

"Gym class is hard. Heather is a gym specialist," Schubert said. But making teams is difficult.

Bodner said there should be a research study into the quality of education in smaller schools compared to larger schools.

In smaller schools, Bodner said, "Students get the one-on-one attention and support that they require across the different subject areas. The teachers' instruction and expectations for students are highly differentiated and tailored to each student's needs and abilities.

"Teachers can very easily communicate with parents regarding students' progress, and monitor more closely the progress and behaviours of the student, with having a smaller class."

But, she acknowledged, "There comes a point when a school is simply too small and cannot provide a quality education to its students."

Schubert and the parent council smiled ruefully when told that visitors had taken Highway 11 at Hadashville north on the road to Lac du Bonnet, searching for the school where Google Maps had positioned it. The school is 11 kilometres to the east of Hadashville, on Provincial Road 506 just north of the Shell and Esso gas station/restaurants on the Trans-Canada in Prawda, but its address is Hadashville, and that's where it shows on Google Maps.

The school's catchment area is a wide one, said Schubert: "We go Hadashville, Prawda, and East Braintree, and as far west as Spruce Siding."

Schubert has a three-year learning plan for multigrade classrooms, adjusting curricula to the abilities of each child, so some are ahead and others a little behind where they ideally should fit. "We're almost on individual plans, because we're so small," she said.

The RM has stationed its recreation director part time in the library, and the school has a part-time jill-of-all-trades secretary/librarian/educational assistant.

Still, Schubert often just has to let the phone go to voice mail while she and Bodner are in class. There's a buzzer by the locked front door.

With nine children, "You still have to produce a newsletter and book field trips," she pointed out, but discipline problems are dealt with right away.

The kids know all about the dilemma facing their school. One may wonder how many adults would have talked about one-on-one instruction back when they were in Grade 4, but the phrase rolls easily off the tongues of several of the Reynolds students.

"I was in kindergarten, there were like 40 in here," said Grade 5 student Devon Nazar.

One girl has heard adults talking about possibly selling the building for $1 -- though, to whom, no one knows.

"I can remember 30 to 40 kids, I kind of miss all the kids that were here. (Sometimes) I feel like I'm the only kid in the world," said Grade 6 student Celina Sommerfeld.

But Celina and the other kids are also clear that life is pretty nifty in a small school.

"It's awesome -- we get a lot more attention from the teachers," said Celina, who reckons she's read half the books in the library. "It's pretty cool to be in a small school, because we get more opportunities, like field trips, more friend time, we get more teacher attention."

She's a tad nervous about going to Whitemouth School for Grade 7, venturing into a mammoth institution of 167 students. "Next year is going to be crazy for me, because I've never experienced it."

Celina's Grade 6 classmate is the only Reynolds student who's ever attended a large school.

"I was in a band once -- I kind of miss that," said the girl, whose parents asked that she not be named. But, "You get more one-on-one time, and I think that's great for us."

Student Meadow Bjorklund echoed her: "You get more one-on-one time with the teacher, you get more education."

Devon said extra help is always there, and teachers recognize immediately when a kid needs help. He's had friends try to entice him into following them to Falcon, but is determined to graduate from Reynolds.

Hawk Reimer takes an hour to bus in from Spruce Siding, but figures it's worth it. "It's not so noisy, and everyone's not so annoying" in a small school, he said.

The parents love Reynolds Elementary School, but they can do the math.

"I wanted (my daughter) to know the world is beautiful," said parent Tanya Hall, who was bullied as a child in Anola and wanted a safe place for her daughter. Hall believes Reynolds isn't that much different than being home-schooled, while offering socialization skills.

"This was the best of both worlds -- she would get one-on-one attention," Hall said. "She really likes it."

Parent Shelly Pizzey said the notion of tight-knit rural communities isn't always as real as it's touted.

"People are moving to the country because they want to be left alone," she said. "Everyone has a different idea of what they want for their children.

"It's been great; they're 10 minutes away from me."

Pizzey saw Reynolds Elementary School start to unravel when the exodus to Falcon got going.

"It was a major factor three years ago when seven of them jumped ship when Falcon opened up to them," Pizzey said.

There are 16 kids within the catchment area being home-schooled, in addition to the children using schools of choice to go to Steinbach, Falcon, and Whitemouth, she said.

"Even 15, 20 in the school would be incredible -- we'd be spoiled."

Will the Selinger government ever budge on the moratorium on school closings that the NDP imposed in 2008? You can read the answer in Monday's Free Press.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 9, 2013 J2


Updated on Saturday, February 9, 2013 at 2:12 PM CST: adds fact box

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