The rise of the internet and its technology means the teacher is no longer the expert in the classroom.
Dawn Wallin of the University of Manitoba said it has become a “messy situation.”
One of three speakers featured on a panel at the 19th National Congress on Rural Education in Canada, she said increasing numbers of aboriginal and immigrant families in rural areas mean the classroom is becoming more diverse, requiring teachers to be more knowledgeable for specialized needs.
Fewer farming families and urban migration are also reducing the number of rural students. The rural school is resembling its past, with the rise of multiple grades in one room.
Further challenges come from increased poverty in rural Canada. In addition, there are currently 30,000 children in foster care, many of whom are in rural areas.
Albert Trask, assistant deputy minister of education for the Yukon, said a decrease in student numbers leads to school consolidation.
In his home province of Newfoundland and Labrador 45 years ago, there were 169,000 students in 1,200 schools with 300 school districts with boards.
Today there are 69,000 students in 200 schools with only two school districts.
He asked if consolidation is a re-sponse by provincial governments to the failure of school boards to respond to the decline and if local school boards are irrelevant. He said interest wanes among parents who have to drive farther to attend school board meetings or teacher interviews.
“I think the disappearance of school boards and divisions is the undemocratization of public education,” Trask said.
Wallin agreed and urged teachers and trustees to be open to doing things differently. She said rural people must “use our civic voices more to be politically strategic for our rural schools.”
Paul Bennett thinks his Alberta school division might have one answer. The superintendent of the Peace River district promotes partnerships.
There are relationships with the local agricultural societies and municipal councils to build gymnasiums and other public places.
As classrooms sit empty, there have been more daycares renting the space. One Rotary club bought a vacant bingo hall and started a career development centre to train students for jobs.
Anglican women make money for their church by providing food for meetings held in former classrooms that are rented out. Connections have also been made to the RCMP, social services, mental health agencies and native friendship centres to help students.
In Grimshaw, Alta., a town of 2,500 people, a new school was built that is attached to the local sports and recreation complex.
Bennett said rural education representatives must share best practices with each other and school divisions should help fund teachers’ professional development and keep them motivated.
All sides are realizing it takes a village to raise a child, he said.
“I see more tired faces this year but I believe there is more hope,” said Bennett.