I asked Dr. Fournier, the principal at JDHES (grade 4–8 school) in Haliburton, to respond to an initial draft of the research paper, in particular responding to the observations and recommendations relating to the school system. This conversation was direct scribed (with attention to responses rather than questions) and vetted by Dr. Fournier.
Dr. Fournier draws on her experience as Principal in an elementary school in a small village generally deemed quite disadvantaged, and in a larger middle school in one of the larger villages in the County, to comment on the importance of government-funded recreation and infrastructure that would address inequity of opportunity. She also shares some well-developed ideas about how community is formed, illustrated by school-based recreational programs, including the barriers to such formation and its importance in developing healthy communities and strong citizens. Emphasis is mine.
The interview took place on May 7, 2013
EF: Some background: I came from an urban area, so I have urban/suburban experience. When I moved up here nine years ago, that was my first rural experience, also my first experience in the educational sector in a rural setting.
What you touched upon, in terms of barriers: Point in Time [local children’s mental health agency] had an after-school recreation program that we would consider universally available, at the school, free, transportation we would hope not an issue – although it did become an issue. In its inception, in the beginning, I went with the health unit to make a presentation to the municipal council about why we believed that municipal councils should commit financially to the after-school program to make it sustainable, after pilot project funding ran out. That’s a constant theme that I have encountered, whether urban or rural, but exaggerated in the rural setting because of geographic distance. Government is great at giving seed money for pilot projects but then they believe you have to walk on your own two feet, find the funds to keep it going. While the government believes in it, they don’t believe in it for its whole shelf life. So when we begin to see the evidence that it is a really useful and important program, we reach the moral dilemma of having to cancel it if you couldn’t sustain it any longer. And this has been a constant theme, a frustration. And it shows lack of vision on the part of government officials. When they find something that works and you can give evidence that it works, they should continue to fund it.
It’s a dual situation: what makes rural community unique is how they pull together, so you have a more intimate knowledge of how programs benefit the community, but by the same token it’s a small gene pool, and you have to ask the same people to give over and over again and you tap them out.
To go back to my point about the after-school recreation program which would have met all the criteria you named, when we knew that we would need external funds beyond seed funding, we went to municipal council. Boy, was it a hard sell! Talk about naïve! When I made the presentation, I thought of course you’re going to see the value of this program for the community, for your kids, why wouldn’t you want to do that for your people? It builds social skills, good citizenship skills. We got strong push back from the council saying that’s not our job, that’s not our responsibility. Eventually they gave us some money but it was not an easy sell. I recognize that the public coffer is not endless, and that even though a program works once, that’s no guarantee that it will keep on working, but to have to go to the point of groveling for money to keep a good thing going, it’s disheartening. I am happy to say that nine years later, the after-school program continues to be in existence.
So the next link to that was, having come from an urban/suburban area where municipalities had fully-funded parks and rec programs, I was astounded to learn that many rural areas have no such thing. So not only was it a struggle to get funds for this program in particular, it was also hard to see why they couldn’t look to other municipalities to see that it was not unusual for municipalities to offer a variety of programs that, if not free, are very accessible. That it would not be an extraordinary thing to see a municipality fund a parks and rec program.
To keep to the heart of what this study is about, looking for opportunities for youth and how that’s tied to migration – fundamentally the lack of a parks and recreation program in each municipality is a real deficit for rural youth, and I think it’s a deficit that’s within the power of higher government to fill.
FM: You can make the case that rural youth are financially disadvantaged in a structural way because costs that in urban centres are paid for by public funds, here are funded by the family, because municipalities don’t fund them.
EF: Absolutely. Nowhere was that demonstrated as much as even after we got the funding and were able to run a very successful program that was on the school site and free, there were still students who couldn’t come because they came on the bus and [parents] who couldn’t afford the gas to come and pick them up after the program. So we actually had a gas fund set aside for those situations.
FM: The issue of elitism – youth whose families have the means take part in extra-curricular activities which are often team sports, competitive, and involve travel, all of which excludes children whose families lack those resources and children who may not be talented: Does that happen at junior high? Are seeds sown then?
EF: I think so to a certain extent. Although there are other extra-curricular activities – music, theatre – the fact that the bulk of sports tend to be competitive teams instead of house leagues - there really isn’t an option. Aren’t a lot of choices. And that’s within the school and out of the school. There aren’t that many house-league types of opportunities to belong to a ball team, or a soccer league, where everybody just goes out and plays and has fun, just recreational.
The kids here who do extracurricular do one of two types, either in the arts or in sports. And if they’re in the arts it’s private and expensive and competitive. And if in sports, it’s private and expensive and competitive. There are not a lot of other options. I do believe there’s Girl Guides, and in that, distance is an issue. From my personal experience, cost is an issue for a lot of students. That’s here as well as in the school in the small village. I have students here who can’t be on the track team, even though the team practices here and is free, but they miss the bus and their parents just can’t afford to get them.
FM: The kids in the study described several variations besides not being able to afford the gas; sometimes it was a matter of parents drinking and not being fit to drive by late afternoon, or just having too many other obligations.
EF: And sometimes [picking kids up] interferes with when parents are working; they just can’t do it.
I could talk about another program we do here that is highly successful. It comes at [the issues] from a different perspective, and goes toward your point about the central importance of family. In conjunction with Point in Time we run a family fun night, and the underlying rationale – where the recreation program began as after-school recreation, this is an evening program – is to increase mental wellness in our families, based on the premise that the more you can do to shore up positive family factors, the better outcome you’re going to have. We gather and from 6:00 to 7:00 to share a meal that is free, then from 7:00 to 8:00 there are a whole host of things that children do with their families, and a variety of mental health workers who come wearing their jeans do activities with the families. It’s been very successful, it’s in its second year and it’s had a whole lot of unintended outcomes. As well as meeting its intended outcomes.
FM: Unintended outcomes like?
EF: Cultural diversity. In our rural area we don’t tend to talk about cultural diversity, more about poverty. But we do have families from other cultures and they are regular attenders at the family night. They are - from the outside looking in - they are what would be described as very stable nuclear families whose children display positive prosocial behaviour regularly. But they are a core group of visible minority families, and so one of the unintended incomes has been to develop awareness of cultural diversity within our school. And acceptance. Breaking down barriers – one of my pet peeves is ‘tolerance’ which means you put up with something – but this really breaks down barriers. It’s been about bringing people together that would not usually come together and having them discover they have things in common. They sit down to share a meal, talk about things their kids do that drives them crazy, share stories; it’s wonderful.
The intent was breaking down barriers of social isolation for families who would fit the usual profile [of risk], and these families have brought a lovely other dimension to the program.
FM: Is there also an element of offering social integration for visible minority families?
EF: Yes, but we know the positive potential for mental health is strong if children have well-functioning families – and we see tangible evidence of that because these children present as socially able kids. And they are also part of a community of visible minority families, and community is also a protective factor, so they have both.
So that comes back to what you’re saying about what’s the goal of education – that it is creating citizens. These children demonstrate good citizenship, good character.
The other group that’s special are students with special needs. We have a few of those children who are regular attendees. And again the program has been really successful with demonstrating the ability to break down those barriers. Coming together with something in common creates a sense of community. That Tuesday night space creates a sense of community. Seeing a mom in tears saying I’ve never seen my kid take a risk like that, interacting with kids that they otherwise would never be with. That creates a sense of community. The other whole positive outcome about breaking down barriers is that then creates a stronger sense of community within the broader community. And we know that one of the protective factors for children’s mental health is a strong community.
And a strong family. And if we have families that are struggling, dealing with all those things that are so stressful, by having at least one night a week when we can take away some of that stress – provide a meal, offer a social connection, offer an easy connection with social agencies that’s useful. There’s still something to be said for the old-fashioned sit at a table and break bread with someone, that puts you on a level playing field.
Where I still see a barrier that needs to be broken – we’ve made inroads into cultural diversity, inroads into special needs population within our school, but I’ve seen very little inroad into the gap of socio-economic status. Those who would – from the outside looking in - be deemed better off financially, whose children have those after-school educational/recreational opportunities, whose children enjoy the benefits of regular attendance at recreational events, do not come. For whatever reason. I can only speculate why – perhaps their lives are booked up. There may be – only speculation – the thought that attendance could bring stigma because the meal is free and you might be seen as needing something. I do think that a genuine part is that those children’s lives are highly scheduled already. I was floored to learn that the only place kids go here for swimming lessons is Bracebridge.
FM: Regarding urban/rural disadvantage, that living rurally is understood to be a life-style choice for which one is prepared to forego some services that urban citizens have e.g. closest swimming pool is 100 km away.
EF: For the majority of the parents I’ve encountered, it’s not a life-style choice, it’s just where they’re from. With the professionals I work with, it’s a life-style choice. And further, it was a huge phenomenon in the small community, not as much here, this concept of working away. So there were many children who did have two-parent families were being raised as if by a single parent because one parent worked away so the family could afford to live. So that creates stressors.
FM: The oil patch situation. Revisited.
EF: I have family in that situation. It’s the only way as a young family with 3 children that they’ll ever be able to afford a house.
FM: What about my suggestion about early intervention?
EF: My sense has been that [youth are] trapped here until they’re old enough until they can do something. For some ‘do something’ means I’m going to get out of school because school isn’t meeting my needs so I’m going to get my own job and have my own life. For others it’s study hard and get away by going away to university. But in the interim years, there is no choice that way. Their families live here so they just have to make do with what they do or don’t have. So if they had those opportunities early on... It really falls back to infrastructure – how does government plan to fund infrastructure so that you can get rid of that whole question of children being stuck here with nothing to do?
If there was a parks & rec program and it funded – is there a rec centre here? That to me is the heart of it, we’re all paying taxes, whether you chose to be here or to come here. I know the belief is if you don’t have a business tax base we can’t afford to do these things. My push back is – you’re going to have a social cost. The result is two-fold, you have children who are just here, don’t have a choice to stay or to leave, and because of their systemically disadvantaged situations, they’ve had these interim years where they haven’t been able to develop good citizenship skills through things that are proven to develop [strengths]. So they stay and perpetuate a negative spiral for the community, low growth. And those whose parents can afford to support their children to have those experiences, they go, so there’s a drain that way too. It’s not just an intellectual drain, it’s a citizenship drain.
So you go back to what do you value in a community. Look at Bracebridge [swimming pool]: I don’t know where that money come from, but it offers them something to do. So what are our kids doing? Our kids go downtown. The others play rep hockey or go to dance or music at a private academy.
So I think it’s a mind set that people need to recognize that building healthy community, you have to build healthy citizenship. There is lots of evidence-based proof that participation in arts, sports – not necessarily competitive – opportunities to volunteer, those provide the building blocks to becoming a good citizen.
If early intervention is not universally accessible, you still have the haves and have-nots. If you had a rec centre here, for example, that was available to all, you’d break down more barriers, different groups would come and you’d get those who just want to play basketball just playing together. And you’d strengthen the [little] communities that are the blocks of your larger community. Maybe then those people would be willing, if they had to leave for post-sec, they would be more likely to want to come back.