Newfoundland students fight changes to their schools

By Christine Orr
I. J. Samson Junior High
St. John's, Newfoundland

Six hundred rioting students crowded the streets of downtown St. John's, on February 11, 1999. They were shaking signs, stopping traffic, and demanding to be heard.

Why did this happen on a Friday like any other in this quiet city? Cassandra Aucoin of Brother Rice High tries to explain.

"Basically we were there to get attention, we just wanted some media attention," she said. "We knew it wouldn't change anything, but we wanted them to hear it."

What Cassandra and hundreds of other students are protesting is the school reform in St. John's. The school system in the Avalon East school district was always denominational, or based on religion. There were strictly Catholic, Protestant, or Pentecostal schools.

Two years ago, parents voted to change the school system to interdenominational so a child could attend a school of their choice and not be refused entry based on their religion. No one was prepared for the changes that followed.

The school board identified 8,000 empty spaces in the existing 81 schools. After two years of planning, trustees proposed a reorganization plan effective this September. They propose closing 13 schools and reconfiguring several others by changing the grade levels of a school. For example, a kindergarten to Grade 6 school will be changed to a Grade 7 to Grade 9 school. About 25, 000 out of 30, 000 students will be reassigned to new schools.

Lynn Green, a school board trustee, tries to justify the dramatic changes in the school system,

"What we are striving for is to reach a level of excellence in all schools so our children will be given the opportunity to reach their full potential."

Students say the move breaks up lifelong friendships, destroys school communities that have a life and spirit of their own, and family tradition -- all to be more "efficient".

School board chairwoman Kathy Legrow has publicly explained the rational behind changes.

"The reform is based upon increased efficiency in the schools and school board," she said.

Some students question the efficiency of this plan.

Holly Strong of I.J. Samson Junior High is slated to attend Booth Memorial High in the fall.
She is upset and doesn't think this will make an effective change.

"Booth may close in 2001," she explains."The reason I was told they were doing the reorganization was to invest more in the schools. It doesn't make much sense to invest in a school that's going to close two years later, so I'm upset because I'll get a second-rate education. After we made friends and recovered from the reorganization we'll be moved from them again, we'll be separated again."

The students also feel they don't have a say in their future. As Melissa Hickey of Gonzaga High School says: "We can't stand up for ourselves, we can't say anything, because we don't even get a voice."