'Our community deserves to have a school'

By Carolyn Goard, Niagara News - Thorold

A multitude Thorold Secondary School supporters filed into Kernahan Park's gymnasium Thursday night, each awaiting to make short, emotion-ridden pleas as to why the city's only high school deserves to stay open.

Of 36 speakers that took to the microphone during a District School Board of Niagara Accommodation Review Committee (ARC) public meeting, 22 speakers-which included Thorold Secondary students, parents, graduates and former staff members along with city representatives-took a few moments to tell committee members why taking away Thorold Secondary would only have detrimental effects on the community's identity.

The meeting was an opportunity to allow the community to provide input on some of the options that have been developed for an accommodation review currently examining Thorold, Kernahan Park, West Park, St. Catharines Collegiate and Sir Winston Churchill Secondary Schools.

So far, the committee has narrowed down four options, three of which recommend Thorold Secondary be closed. Kernahan Park is slated to close in all of the four options.

Before the presentations went underway, DSBN superintendant of planning and transportation and meeting facilitator Marilyn Hyatt reminded the public that ultimately, the committee is working to develop a long-term solution that emphasizes enhanced programming and community identity while imposing minimal disruptions on families that would be affected.

But an overwhelming amount of residents who spoke up on behalf of preserving Thorold Secondary Thursday night said that closing the community's high school would only do the exact opposite-it would rob the city and its residents of any sense of community identity and would pose a tremendous amount of grief on families by having to bus their kids out to a neighbouring city.

Longtime resident Dave Sabourin said Thursday it makes no sense to shut down a school in a city where development and population is projected to increase substantially. If the city were to lose its only high school, families will be less inclined to buy homes in an area that they will only have to bus their kids out of, he said.

"Put our kids in Thorold."

And the heartfelt comments only seemed to echo one another as presenters took to the stand urging committee members to reexamine the idea of closing Thorold High.

Before handing the committee a petition against closing the school signed by what he said was about 2,300 signatures, Mayor Ted Luciani said that if Thorold High were to close, "any sense of community would be shattered."

While telling members of the ARC that he too was once a proud Golden Eagle, he said that there would undoubtedly be serious ramifications in leaving a growing city without a high school.

Penny Pomeroy, resident and mother of a Thorold Secondary School graduate, said having a sense of community is important to all the residents of Thorold, and having a high school is central in creating that tie.

She said closing the school would demonstrate a complete lack in the board's understanding of the importance of community.

It was Grade 12 student Ashley Bellamy's speech that was followed by a standing ovation and a roaring applause from a crowd of students sporting the school's signature purple. Speaking on behalf of her fellow students, Bellamy said the high school is a significant component for extra-curricular involvement and is a hub that links many students with the community.

She explained how sticking around for athletic practices and play rehearsals would be interrupted with students having to catch busses to get home.

"We are a big family and we value the school deeply," she said, adding the school is not only central to the students, but is also a home base for several community events, including the annual Arts and Crafts Show, where many students put in their volunteer hours.

Taking the school away would mean students could no longer support and get involved in such events, Bellamy said.

Village Church pastor Mike Collins' presentation only reiterated that of Bellamy's. He said after four years of volunteering as an assistant coach with the high school's football team, he's only come to realize how significant of a role Thorold Secondary has been in shaping the city's character.

"We want our high school. We want it to stay open. We need local kids in a local school."

Speaking on behalf of the parents, Sandra Deurden reminded the committee of the school's automotive technology classroom and machine shop's outstanding reputation. "These successes speak for themselves."

She added that some $5 million has been injected into the school over the last eight years to modernize and enhance the facility. "Consider the facts. It will be a negative impact on the unforeseen future if Thorold Secondary closes."

And while residents said the school's closure would without a doubt have a negative impact on the city's cultural and social well being, former Thorold Secondary principal and former city councillor Craig Finlay asked the committee to also think about the negative economic impact shutting the school down would have.

Coun. Tim Whalen said the decision to close the school would mean the board would have to spend $10.5 million to build portables at Sir Winston Churchill to accommodate Thorold students.

While declining numbers in student enrollments triggered the review, former student Brianne Wilson said a school population of roughly 400 students shouldn't be sacrificed.

"That number is not necessarily miniscule."

Wilson said when more and more students are pushed into schools, they are treated more like a number than an individual, which can greatly hinder their high school experience. She said at Thorold High, everyone is given the attention they both need and deserve.

"Don't rob our municipality of that," Wilson said.

Similarly, Coun. Becky Lott said that if the DSBN closes Thorold High, they would be sending the message that they don't care about the school's students and parents and are not interested in accommodating them.

"Our community deserves to have a school."

Resident Madeline Miller told the committee Thursday how large of a role Thorold High has played in her family's history, as four generations of family members have attended that school.

Diane Barnes said she also has a strong tie to the school, and has been associated with it for over 80 years now.

"A community without a school would have a difficult time remaining a community. Don't let this happen to our school."

Although the duration of the evening had a major focus on Thorold Secondary, several speakers also rose up on behalf of Sir Winston's extended French program, stating that if that program were to be relocated, the school's sense of community would be greatly affected.

Hyatt reminded the public that the committee will not have any actual decision making power and that the final decision rests with the DSBN's board of trustees, who will be deliberating after the recommendations are submitted.

She said the board can either approve all, some or none of the recommendations put on the table by the ARC and the senior DSBN administrative team.

The committee will meet on Thursday, Feb. 16 in hopes of developing a recommendation, and the public will then have another opportunity to provide input at a Thursday, March 1 meeting. All meetings are held at Kernahan Park Secondary School at 6 p.m.