Par­ents fight to keep Hess Street School open

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - CARMELA FRAGOMENI

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.”

GARY YOKOYAMA, THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

Hess Street School has served the com­mu­nity since 1882. A new school was built in 1974.

CATHIE COW­ARD, THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

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.

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