Parents fight to keep Hess Street School open
BENJAMIN OSCAR and his young family fled Congo and became refugees in Uganda. In September, they made it to Hamilton and to the peace they sought.
But the calm this city promised has given way to additional stress and upheaval now that Hess Street School, a big source of comfort, is in danger of closing.
“We are from a traumatized kind of life,” Oscar said. “We are refugees. You can see how isolated I am … I started developing new relationships with people (through the school).”
Hess Street is one of nine elementary schools that are part of the Hamilton public board’s accommodation review, being undertaken to attract more provincial funding for new schools.
Of the nine, only Hess — just northwest of the downtown core, at Hess Street North and Cannon Street West — was singled out for closure by school board staff.
Board chair Todd White says the possible closure is not based on low enrolment: At 77 per cent capacity, the school’s capacity is not considered low.
The province requires reviews of all schools to reduce empty seats and the Hamilton public board staff happened to focus on Hess, he said.
White insisted Hess could end up staying open after the west Hamilton
review, which includes Earl Kitchener, Central, Dr. Davey, Cathy Wever, Queen Victoria, Bennetto, Ryerson and Strathcona.
“Hess won’t close if the feedback we receive tells us otherwise,” White said.
A staff report in November stated the criteria used for the west Hamilton review included physical condition of the schools, optimum operation of buildings, as well as the impact of the closure.
West Hamilton schools aren’t the only cluster under review. The board initiated an accommodation review in Ancaster and last year, it conducted other area reviews, including Stoney Creek.
None of the schools in this west Hamilton cluster have low enrolment numbers that warrant closure, White said. They average being 82 per cent full. Hess’s 346 students can be easily accommodated at Bennetto, he said.
The staff suggestion to close Hess is based on a “technical report” required by the Ministry of Education to reduce seats, but it’s not binding, White said.
“It’s not the best way to start the conversation,” he acknowledged.
Many of the 150 people who attended a heated public meeting in January believed the Hess school closure was inevitable because other options, such as keeping it open, weren’t understood, White said. The staff report, however, didn’t note other options.
White says trustees can still decide to keep Hess operational by repairing or rebuilding it through other funding streams.
Hess parent council chair David Heska doesn’t buy that.
“That’s the spin (White) wants to present …(White’s) a good politician and he’s doing what he needs to do to get this accommodation review working.”
Heska thinks the board has targeted Hess from the start.
“In my opinion, they thought the parents, many of them new Canadians and immigrants, would not create as much of a protest as parents in the other schools. And so I think they purposely didn’t recommend Earl Kitchener or another school because if they did, they’d have chaos.”
But they got chaos anyway, Heska added, because the board underestimated Hess parents.
Oscar says his daughter and son, who are in senior and junior kindergarten, don’t speak English yet but feel at home at Hess. The school is within walking distance of home, which means Oscar, who doesn’t have a job yet, can sprint over to sort out any issues with his children.
The persecution and threats faced in the Democratic Republic of Congo are gone, but the ordeal is still fresh — Oscar says his father was killed for being a foreigner even though he was born there. His grandparents came from Rwanda.
He calls Hess “a unity school” because of the varied nationalities and religions that coalesce there. On its website, the school says it has students from more than 30 countries.
Retired Hess teacher Kathy Tuite says the school is both a model and a beacon — characteristics she feels will be lost if it closes and the students are moved to another school. The immigrant, refugee and marginalized families at Hess feel the school is safe for their children, Tuite says.
“They will not have this accessibility if the children are bused. Without a car, they will be excluded from so much.”
With Hess, families have a chance to meet other families and be part of the school community, Tuite adds. Staff, volunteers and parents “have got it down to a beautiful tapestry” of seamless services, from translators to community support.
“This is the school that could teach the community about what it is to work together.”
For newcomer Oscar, closing Hess would mean starting over in Hamilton — and undertaking a costly move to be near his children’s new school because he doesn’t have a car. “I’ll never get the peace I’m looking for… I’m not settling — and I need to settle.”
Hess Street School has served the community since 1882. A new school was built in 1974.
Benjamin Oscar and his children, Jacque and Danielle, are happy with Hess Street School. That’s why Oscar’s family is fighting to keep it open. The school has a lot of new Canadian students. The Oscar family is from Congo.