Seeley's Bay, Ont. — I grew up in a small town — and I mean really small. Seeley's Bay has fewer than 1,000 people living in an area of roughly two square kilometres, and is located a half-hour drive to the nearest city (Kingston, Ont.).
I live in Toronto now, and a lot of the people I meet here assume that living in the countryside must have made for an ideal childhood: the beautiful outdoor spaces, the clean air, the close-knit community. In my experience, the most defining characteristic of rural life was a lack of access to resources. For me specifically, it meant 14 years of my public school system failing to give me what I needed or prepare me for my career.
In elementary school I was often punished for reading under my desk during class. It was a constant source of frustration for my teachers and a perpetual topic of conversation at parent-teacher interviews, but no matter how many times I was chastised or had my books taken away, I kept doing it.
The shining exception to this was Grade 4, because my teacher noticed that regardless of whether I was paying attention or not, I still got straight As. Her classroom was equipped with the biggest bookshelf I'd ever seen, and thanks to her lenience I read more that year than I ever had before. It was the only year I wasn't hopelessly bored. Though ignoring my studies in favour of reading probably wasn't an optimal solution, it was an opportunity to expand my knowledge and boundaries at a pace that felt right to me.
Toward the end of Grade 8, my parents had me tested for giftedness, so I made the transition from elementary to high school with some hope for a more challenging academic experience. Unfortunately my school board did not offer gifted classes, and my "Individualized" Education Program consisted of occasional extra reading or homework assignments on top of my regular work. In 2012, my last year of high school, my school board reported 73 intellectually gifted students at the secondary level, representing just over 0.3 per cent of total enrolment. Being such a small, easily overlooked portion of the student body, it's perhaps unsurprising that I, and others like me, fell through the cracks.
Canada's population is highly concentrated in urban areas. As of 2016, 35.5 per cent of the population lived in either Toronto, Vancouver or Montreal — a 5.6-per-cent increase over the last three decades. With so much economic and cultural focus on big cities, it might be easy to let important rural infrastructure, like education, fall by the wayside. Whether it's lack of funding for bus routes, lagging graduation rates or a lack of teachers, rural schools across the country are in need of more attention.
In general, rural schools can't take a chance on offering specialized courses or other programs.
As public school funding in Ontario is largely tied to enrolment, smaller schools make do with fewer resources. While I had many wonderful teachers, dedication to student success only goes so far without funding. According to a 2017 study conducted by People for Education, "The inequities between schools in urban areas and those in Ontario's small towns suggest that the funding formula is not responding well to the needs of our rural and northern communities."
Many rural schools might even disappear altogether; a majority of proposed school closures throughout Ontario over the next few years are concentrated in rural areas. This would force rural students to commute longer distances daily just to get to class. While Ontario's former Liberal government had presented a plan to strengthen rural and northern education which involved pledging $20 million in funding to support rural schools, it's unclear whether the current government plans to continue these efforts (although based on their current track record with school funding, I'm not hopeful).
This lack of resources also limited my ability to pursue classes and extracurricular activities that really interested me. While my school offered the basics in maths, sciences and humanities and offered plenty of sports-related extracurriculars, my interests fell outside of these. I was interested in student journalism, but since my school didn't have a newspaper and there was little interest among my classmates in starting one, I made do with writing a short, superficial weekly column about school events for the local paper. I love sewing and design and would have loved to take courses on them, but my school only offered general art and music courses. I wasn't involved in many after-school activities since I was bad at team sports, but if there had been any clubs based around art, film or literature on offer I would have joined in a heartbeat.
People seem surprised when I tell them I had to take writer's craft and media studies online because my school didn't offer them, but e-learning is a large part of how rural schools make up for their lack of course offerings. It's a stopgap solution at best; these two online courses were hands down my worst academic experiences in high school, and on average I got lower marks in them than I ever got in my regular courses.
My high school also didn't offer International Baccalaureate (IB) classes, so although several of my teachers told me I might enjoy and excel in them, it wasn't an option. While I had been in French immersion in elementary and had loved it, my high school only offered one extended French class per semester. The class schedule was also limited; certain advanced math courses were only offered every two years, and one year the extended French class scheduling forced me to choose between art and geography (I ended up taking the geography course online over the summer instead).
In general, rural schools can't take a chance on offering specialized courses or other programs because enrolment might not be high enough to justify them. While this might suit the majority of students, it leaves students with other interests, like me, out in the cold. Although I pursued my interests in writing, video editing and sewing outside of school, a broader selection of classes and extracurricular activities accessible through my school could have helped me zero in on what I wanted to pursue after I graduated. Instead of applying for undergraduate programs in journalism, media production or fashion design, I ended up completing a Bachelor of Arts in English, largely because I didn't know what else to do.
My academic experiences, or lack thereof, certainly frustrated me as a teenager, but I didn't realize the extent until I started university. Compared to my underfunded high school of 400 students, attending the University of Toronto, the largest and highest-ranked university in the country, was like a dream. I was thrilled to make friends with similar interests to mine, friends who loved learning and academia as much as I did. But in getting to know these new friends and hearing about their academic backgrounds, I began to realize how greatly our experiences differed.
Many of my new friends were also identified as gifted, but instead of being given extra English homework, they had been placed in gifted classes designed specifically to challenge them. Where I had felt frustrated and isolated by lack of course and club options, they had participated in art and film clubs, taken sewing classes, written for student newspapers, learned Japanese and Latin, or studied abroad for a semester. While I considered which first-year courses to take, my friends with IB transfer credits were signing up for second-year courses or picking out fun electives. As I slogged through my final year of high school with UofT on the horizon, I had anticipated my arrival greatly. But once I got there, these feelings of inadequacy began to tinge my excitement.
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The front page of my former high school's website proudly proclaims it to be "The Best Small High School in Canada!" The school's administration touted this phrase a lot while I was there, and I remember always being annoyed by it. Our school was small, had minimal resources, and never seemed to be able to cater to my needs or interests — on what basis was it supposed to be "the best?" It's hard to determine how factual that claim is, but if it's anywhere close to true, I worry for all the kids out there stuck in rural high schools that aren't giving them what they need.
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