North of Bridgenorth, Ontario, in the meandering valleys of Selwyn Township, lies the old homestead of Cuthbert and Mary Branch. The once proud fields survive to honour Cuthbert's attempt to tame the landscape on his 100-acre purchase. Cuthbert was a descendant of old Scottish stock who settled near Lakefield shortly after Susannah Moodie (Roughing It in the Bush, 1852) established her homestead nearby.
Cuthbert's purchase established his independence from his father's own 100-acre farm, which could not support a large and growing family. On his own land, acquired in 1890, he built himself a fine brick home, a large, banked barn and outbuildings to fulfill his dreams of a mixed farm operation. With a nod to the family's Scottish roots, Mary and Cuthbert named their home the "House on the Hill."
Cuthbert worked the land. The best and most successful crops were rocks and scrub cedar, but the water was good, rains were plentiful and the livestock thrived. The distance to a school was a hardship for his six children and the many neighbouring children from the homes along the concession roads that overlooked Chemong Lake.
Cuthbert and Mary Branch deliberated for only a moment and carved out two acres on the corner of their farm, offering it as a site for a new school. The community supported the vision and the building of a school. Shortly after the turn of the century, there stood a fine brick building with two rooms and separate entrances, one for the girls and one for the boys.
Over the next five decades, the school expanded into four rooms and a bell was added. It rang out at the beginning and end of the school day. Mary could see the school through the trees, and when the bell rang for the end of class, she moved to the window to watch for her children hopping the split-rail fence. She followed their meandering path through the field of oats and into the orchard, and listened for the sounds of the pail being filled at the well and the splashing of water as some of its contents failed to make it into the summer kitchen where dinner was waiting.
The Branch Schoolhouse served the community well. A few of its graduates volunteered for the battles of World War I and some did not come home, silenced forever on the battlefields of Europe. More joined and were lost in World War II. Children graduated, served their communities and raised their own families. The circle of life continued.
Early in the 1950s, as community life continued to change, the impact of the passing years on the school was evident. Repairs were needed, enrolment declined, and there was pressure to consolidate schools. A decision was made to close the school and the last class graduated in 1964. The children of the community travelled to Lakefield and had a new gymnasium, a music room, sports teams, science labs, and a range of programming that was not possible in the small Branch school. Today, the schoolhouse serves one family who has lovingly transformed the building into a home. It still has the bell cupola and the two entrances, reminders of a different time.
The Branch school symbolizes the difficult decisions we, as trustees, face in our communities and school boards across the province. We represent and are part of our communities. We live, play and often work there and we raise our families there. We know the needs and make choices that put our students first.
In developing an Accommodation Review plan, we take on the hard and often emotionally draining work that touches whole communities. But I am heartened by this work. Why?
To me, an Accommodation Review needs the insights of local trustees and their connection to their community. It represents local democracy and community dialogue in action. Would we want these decisions to be made in the remote halls of bureaucracy where the uniqueness of the community is not known and the passionate voices are not heard or are stifled? Trustees welcome public participation and encourage discourse that allows the electorate to have a direct influence on what happens in their community. School board trustees are the only elected representatives with unique and local responsibility for education. We represent a distinct constituency, we have an obligation to advocate, and we have a moral purpose to serve our communities well.
We follow in the tradition of the Branch family that saw the need for a school, and of the trustees who made the decision to close the school six decades later to offer the children of that community a richer education experience.
The challenges continue to be ours: new collective bargaining environments, a broadened responsibility for child care under our mandate, increased advocacy for educational equity for First Nations, Métis and Inuit students, a resolve to improve the funding model so that it keeps pace with change. Above all, there is our role in standing up for those who are without a voice in our society. These challenges encourage and strengthen me; they reassure me that we are carrying forward the valuable role of trustees in ensuring that our students have access to a rich educational experience.
I can stand at the kitchen window of the House on the Hill and watch the sun set across the winter landscape, casting the schoolhouse into shadow that lengthens onto the path the Branch children took home after school. But I am heartened to know that within a short time, as the sun rises, it will reflect off the brick and bathe the schoolhouse in light - a steadfast reminder of the foundations that are laid, the value in our role, and the enduring legacy and opportunity that our school system provides to all of our children.