Considering transportation in rural communities

— a guest post by Kate Oland, of Victoria County, Cape Breton and a member of the “Small Schools Initiative”**

When I was a child growing up in a small town in Nova Scotia, Sunday drives were a family ritual.  My mom, dad, two brothers and I would pile into the station wagon, loaded down with tuna sandwiches and a Thermos of Kool-aid, and head out for a drive in the country.  We explored every back road, nook, and cranny of Nova Scotia, marveling at the beauty and diversity of landscapes in our relatively small province.

Today, I have three children of my own, and I’m fortunate enough to live in rural Victoria County, Cape Breton.   I think my kids are having a pretty good life, surrounded by natural wonders, in touch with the cycles of life and death on our mixed, subsistence farm, nurtured by their small, rural school, and engaged in their community.

But the Sunday drive is NOT a part of our family’s tradition.  Although I feel nostalgic about those family adventures, there are good reasons why we’ve dropped the Sunday drive ritual.

In my family (as in most rural families), driving is a necessity.  We drive to town for work.  We drive to town to buy the food we can’t grow for ourselves.  Our children ride the school bus for about an hour each day.  We drive to visit friends, attend social activities, and take lessons.  By Sunday, it’s a luxury just to stay at home!

And on the rare occasions when we do take the children on a road trip, it’s a decision we don’t make lightly. Gasoline has become too expensive to waste on tooling around aimlessly, and the deplorable state of many rural roads means inevitable wear and tear on our trusty little car.

We’ve also grown more aware of the environmental impact of driving.  Motoring merrily through the countryside loses some of its appeal when you think of it in terms of carbon emissions and climate change.

But while our family has jettisoned the “Sunday Drive mentality” which originated in a time of cheap gasoline, consumer exuberance, and environmental innocence, it seems the larger society is slower to change course.  And for people living in rural areas, this happy motoring hangover is having serious consequences.

In an age of computer connectivity, higher gasoline prices, and heightened environmental sensitivity, it is frustrating that rural dwellers are still governed by the cheap oil mantras of “bigger is better” and “centralize for efficiency.”  Government services are largely centralized in urban areas, as are medical specialists.  Perhaps most appallingly, rural schools continue to be threatened with closure, putting more rural children on longer bus rides to large schools far from home.

What does this mean “on the ground?”  In Victoria County, Cape Breton, it means that if you want to obtain a GED, participate in adult or continuing education through the school board, meet with a business counselor, have a baby in the hospital, access employment counseling, attend a college or university course (unless you’re participating in a course on a first nation reserve), or access most frontline mental health services (other than limited child and adolescent counseling services), you must leave the county.  And you must leave it under your own steam, because there is no public transportation.

That means that a single parent hoping to complete a GED or attend adult high school, for example, must have access to a car, and must have the money to drive that car for about two hours a day to attend a course in the city.

It means that a family in which a parent is profoundly depressed and unable to work must somehow manage to find the gas money and emotional energy to travel to and from the city for psychiatric assistance or counseling.  Follow-up care or support for the caregivers may also require trips to the city, as many specialists will not provide assistance by phone.

And it means that rural communities must fight, every few years, to prevent their dynamic, high-achieving, and beloved rural schools from closing.   Communities know instinctively that new families will not move in if their children will have to ride the bus for two hours a day to reach the nearest school.  What’s at stake, for the children, is the erosion of educational quality, the loss of personal and family time, and the internalized message that they can’t get what they need in their home community.

And the upshot of all of this?  Poor literacy levels, unhealthy coping strategies (alcohol and drug use), a low rate of business startups, high levels of stress in communities, financial strain, and – of course – youth leaving for greener pastures.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  There are, in fact, some innovative service delivery methods that have the potential to make rural life less of a road trip.  Some of these models are in place already, but others will require community and political will to become reality.

Some examples of effective rural health delivery come to mind.  There’s the Nova Scotia Telehealth Network, a video conferencing communications network that connects healthcare facilities around Nova.  Although the system is not yet being used to its full potential in every community, there are success stories.  At the Inverness Hospital, for example, (one county over from Victoria County), people dealing with mental health issues attend an initial, in-office visit with a psychiatrist in the city, and then attend subsequent sessions from their community hospital via Telehealth – greatly reducing travel costs, costs in lost time and productivity, and patient stress.

There’s also the Nova Scotia Breast Screening Program which, in addition to providing mammography at fixed locations across the province, operates three mobile mammography vehicles which take breast screening to rural communities.  In 2008-2009, the Eastern mobile screening unit partnered with the Cape Breton District Health Authority and Cancer Care Nova Scotia to deliver a pilot “one stop cancer prevention clinic” to under serviced women in Cape Breton.  The experience included a mammogram, a Pap test, a clinical breast examination, colon cancer screening education and a skin cancer assessment, as well as nutrition education for cancer prevention with a registered dietician.  More than one thousand women attended one of 135 stop clinics in nine communities across Cape Breton.  As one of the women who attended, I hope this pilot becomes a standard model of care.  Instead of having to schedule five separate appointments, most of which would have required me to drive to the city, I was able to drop by the mobile unit at my community hospital and have everything completed there in under an hour.

The Strongest Families Institute is another rural health delivery success story.  A not-for-profit  company, Strongest Families offers home-based programs with telephone support to address childhood issues including difficult behavior, anxiety, recurring headache or abdominal pain, and bedwetting.  Tested over a six year period in the Centre for Research in Family Health at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax, the programs are offered to families free of charge and include workbooks, DVDs, and weekly phone meetings with Strongest Families coaches.  Families learn and are supported in their own homes, at times convenient to them – and at no cost in terms of gas or lost productivity.  The program has been so successful that Nova Scotia has just announced expansion of the service under its new Mental Health and Addictions strategy.

Outside the Health Sector, rural service delivery success stories become harder to find.  As an employee of the Cape Breton Regional Library, I have to give a shout out to the Victoria County and Cape Breton County Bookmobiles – two of only a few bookmobiles still in operation in Nova Scotia.   Bookmobiles work hand in hand with online library software, making it possible for remote rural dwellers to order materials from any library in the region, for pickup at stops in their own communities.  Bookmobiles work with schools, preschools, seniors’ facilities, and community groups, and use innovative partnerships to deliver information and programs about healthy eating, physical fitness, and wise energy use, among other things.

Sadly, innovate service delivery development seems to be lagging in the field of education.  In an era of declining student enrollment and funding cutbacks, school boards are under pressure to economize – and rural schools continue to be easy targets.  There are goodwill gestures from the Department of Education, which talks a good game about supporting rural communities.  The Department is working to improve online education (with plans to increase the number of students who can access online learning from 500 to 1500), it has tried to create a partnership-based service delivery model with its Schools Plus Program, and it continues to provide supplementary funding that’s meant to allow boards to keep rural schools running.

Functionally, however, none of these initiatives go far enough.  Isolated Small Schools funding, for example, is given to the boards for each isolated small school within its boundaries – but the money is in no way tied to the funded schools.  Middle River School, for example, nets the school board $150,000 per year from the Province – a grant which almost completely covers the cost of running the school – but the guaranteed funding does not prevent the school board from repeatedly reviewing the school for closure.  The argument, from the board’s perspective, is that the “cost per square foot per student” is too high – even though the total cost of running the school is covered.

Similarly, online and distance learning – still very much in its infancy in this province – is not meeting the needs of most rural students.  Teachers report that the current model only works well for highly motivated, independent learners.  And, compared to the plethora of course offerings available in urban high schools, online course offerings remain meager.

The problem, as I see it, is the happy motoring hangover I referred to earlier.  As a society, our “default setting” seems to favour closing rural schools and bussing students to larger facilities far from home.

And this is particularly galling to me, as a rural parent, because the decision makers have not spent sufficient time on understanding the impact of bussing.  Although research in this area is sparse, there have been a few notable studies which looked at the effects of long bus rides on young children.  These studies indicated that long bus rides reduced children’s opportunities for physical activity and participation in extracurricular programs; decreased the amount of free time children had for homework, play, and family; affected their nutrition (as many were unable to stomach breakfast before a long, bumpy ride to school); affected what kinds of courses they took in high school (students on long bus rides knew they wouldn’t have time to devote to more challenging course work); and reduced the likelihood of high school graduation.

Long bus rides are also a huge grey area in terms of bullying.  In contrast to the school and the school yard, where student behavior is monitored and programs are in place to prevent bullying, the school bus is a no man’s land.  Bus drivers (quite rightly) need to keep their eyes on the road, and are not there primarily to supervise behavior.  In rural settings, children as young as four may be on the bus with eighteen year olds.  There are numerous anecdotal reports of inappropriate language, teasing, bullying, shoving, and inappropriate touching.

And the old argument – that children must endure these hours on the bus because they will be going to a “bigger, better” school – is hogwash.  Decades of solid academic research confirms the educational advantages of small, community schools and multi-age classrooms.  Children nurtured in small, community schools close to home in their formative years score higher on many social measures (cooperation, for example) than children in large, centralized schools.  They also benefit from an educational setting which includes – and is the heart of – their community; where community members volunteer in the classroom and participate actively in the life of the school.

We need to see the kind of innovation that is becoming apparent in health care applied to public education in the rural setting, if we are going to keep rural children in their home communities and “off the road.”  What might this look like?  Here’s a short list:

  • Start by embracing the idea that schools should be at the center of every community, and that those schools should be centers of lifelong learning for all citizens.
  • Make use of existing technology to support rural classroom learning.  Link small, isolated schools with other schools to exchange ideas or share teaching time.
  • Listen to rural voices and consider returning to a rural-centered curriculum that would encourage children to think creatively and entrepreneurially about living in rural areas.
  • In literacy-poor counties like Victoria, create a Continuing Education Facilitator position.  If community schools were community learning centers equipped with appropriate technology, the Facilitator could help adults obtain a GED, access distance and online learning from community colleges and universities, lead online meetings with community groups from across the region, and help people learn computer and technology skills.
  • Seriously beef up distance learning opportunities for rural high school students, and look at delivery models including small group learning linked to an actual teacher and classroom elsewhere.
  • Consider whether charter schools might be an option, if the political will to support public rural learning does not manifest.
  • Consider whether meaningful supports to home schooling families might be an option, if the political will to support public rural learning does not manifest.

— Kate

** Kate Oland is a member of the “Small Schools Initiative,” which connects advocates for small schools across Nova Scotia. The initiative aims to put schools at the centre of rural revitalization. Visit their facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/NovaScotiaSmallSchoolsInitiative/timeline. Please feel free to share your thoughts on Kate’s thoughts in the comments section to this post!

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