Janitors are polishing the floors at St. Patrick’s-Alexandra School while the halls are empty. It’s summer vacation. On the second floor, the library shelves are half-filled with books. It’s as if the shelves have been cleared for dusting, but a janitor tells me they’ve been mostly bare for years. Across the hall, the primary room looks like an outdated, unfurnished home, waiting to be filled. Four tiny tables form an archipelago in the centre of the room. Crafts, in short supply, are stacked in cupboards and a small number of stuffed animals are tucked into a hamper. This fall, the classroom will do double duty for the combined Primary and Grade 1 classes, containing eleven toddlers total.
Attendance at St. Pat’s, one of the hopeful beacons of education in Halifax’s tightly woven North End community, has been falling for years. The south wing of the third floor has been closed to students in recent years since attendance began to drop and teachers began to quit. Just 80 students attended the P to 9 school in 2008 – 58 students less than the 138 enrolled the year before, though the building has the capacity for 800. Falling enrollment is one of many reasons the Halifax Regional School Board voted in March to close the brick building as a school by 2011. The former school property will be sold to make way for condominiums.
St. Pat’s is one of the few schools in Nova Scotia with Africentric leanings. Serving the mostly African-Canadian population of Uniacke Square, the school teaches the history and values of the black community, giving priority to African Nova Scotian role models such as Wayne Adams, the first black member of the province’s legislature; Dr. William P. Oliver, the first African Nova Scotian to receive two degrees; and Corrine Sparks, the first African Nova Scotian judge. Plaques bearing their names and penciled portraits hang in the halls.
In a series of meetings, community members and local representatives fiercely debated the pros and cons of closing St. Pat’s. Eventually, the Halifax Regional School Board voted five to three that the unique school must close.
In the end, the School Board said the overwhelming presence of social problems in the neighbourhood led to the final decision. Sex trade workers frequent nearby Creighton Street. Homeless people occasionally sleep under the brick awning at the back of the building. “Those squeegee kids sleep ‘til noon,” another janitor told me, matter-of-factly. Metro Turning Point, a halfway house on Barrington Street is also in the school’s neighbourhood. Irvine Carvery, Chair of the School Board, was unavailable to comment further on the Board’s decision.
Denise Allen, Chair of the Halifax Central Education Committee, says the closure of the school is a sign of gentrification – tantamount to the end of the community, in her opinion. That’s why she rallied St. Pat’s parents together to fight for the school’s future. She helped to organize bus fare and car pools to an Imagine Our Schools meeting (the School Board’s public consultation process regarding a host of educational decisions), and the committee held writing sessions in advance for parents who wanted to be heard at the meeting. But it wasn’t enough to counteract the school’s dropping attendance and the area’s reputation for crime and prostitution.
“We have to look at the issue of poverty, one of the root causes of why there’s violence in the inner city. Poverty’s the number one root cause. So we should address the poverty. But instead of dealing with that, the solution is close down a school. And when ever you close down a school in the inner city, you always open up a prison.”
She’s speaking metaphorically, expressing what is not a new idea. When youth drop out of school, she says, they often turn to a life of crime.
St. Pat’s serves a mostly impoverished community of single parents, immigrants and unemployed workers; a demographic Allen says is desperate for education. She believes a community school is the solution to poverty and violent crime in the neighbourhood because education can prevent inner-city youth from making bad life decisions.
“The drugs, the halfway house, all that is just compacted into this one community,” 19-year-old Kadeem Hinch tells me. “It’s around the kids.” He says he can see both sides of the debate but is adamant the school should stay open.
Hinch squints through the cloudy glass windows of the school’s front entrance. He remembers bursting through these doors with his friends at lunchtime and sliding down the snowy slopes of the moat that separates the school from Maitland Street.
A vibrant mural is barely visible through the mottled front door windows. It covers the opposite wall, floor to ceiling. Hinch, who will attend the graphic design program at NSCC this fall, helped to paint it as part of African Heritage Month when he was in junior high. Giraffes roam through a jungle oasis of grassland and waterfalls. Community members gather in the foreground, dressed in vibrant prints and head coverings. Grass huts stand in the shade of tall palm trees in the distance. The painting represents the school's cultural roots.
But there are no protective palms on Maitland Street. Instead, on the next block over and creeping ever closer is a row brand new condominiums. "For Sale" and "Sold" signs pepper the properties. They’re waiting to be filled. Meanwhile, St. Pat's classrooms continue to empty.
As I bike the wrong way down the one-way street, another row of condos appears to my left. They look like suburbia in downtown Halifax.
“We have enough condos in this neighbourhood,” Hinch says. “I really don’t think that we should tear down a good school to build more expensive condos. I think we’re losing the community by building those condos, losing the history.”
The bright-eyed and bubbly graduate is a Staff Coordinator at Saint George’s Youth Net, a youth outreach and activity centre housed by the robin’s-egg-blue church next door. For seven years he’s participated in and helped to organize after-school activities for the dwindling St. Pat’s population because he cares about the school.
When the building closes two years from now, the neighbourhood children will move to Joseph Howe Elementary School and Oxford Junior High School, one kilometre and two kilometres away, respectively.
Hinch says it’s a shame the kids will have to walk so far when they already have a perfectly good school in their neighbourhood.
“The school itself has a lot of potential,” he says. “I mean it has a lot of things other schools don’t have, like sewing rooms, like cooking labs, a pottery lab, a nice big art room, a nice big gym. They have a lot of things that can be used. I think it should stay up. I love the school.”
“You’re certainly not closing it for the sake, for the good of the people,” says Denise Allen. “‘It’s for your own good, it’s for your own good that we’re closing your school, [we’re] only looking out for the health and the safety of your children,’” she says, mimicking the school board. “Close down your school and send your children over two kilometres to walk to go to school.”
On the back deck of her home off Windsor Street, her grandson, Lenai, gurgles in his cozy baby carrier, eyes locked on grandma. Allen says she hopes he’ll attend a school in her neighbourhood when he gets a little older.
“The one thing that is going to make that area feel like a community, they took away,” she says.
Allen also laments that once the school is closed, the land will be privatized. She saw it happen in Toronto, where she grew up.
“The most vulnerable people in our society have to suffer. Why? Because that area, that land that St. Pat’s is sitting on and Uniacke Square is sitting on, is too good for them. It’s too precious. They have to be forced out of there. And eventually that’s what’s going to happen.”
Allen hoped the St. Pat’s building would become an affordable vocational school that offers skills training to youth.
“If that’s not happening then you haven’t addressed the root cause of violence in that area,” she says.
Unfortunately for Allen and Hinch, it seems the fate of the school has already been decided: the school board’s development proposal for the property says the “former Alexandra School site” will be sold to make way for 48 additional condos. Another chunk of the property will be dedicated to one of three development options, currently under appeal: six-storey multi-units, a private school or a homeless shelter.
“It’ll be condos for sure,” a grey-bearded janitor tells me as I leave through the school’s side door into the sunlight. “That’s the rumour, anyway.”