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June 20, 2004

  • The Day They Closed My High School - Part One
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    June 16, 1989 wasn’t the last day my high school was open—there was another two weeks before graduation—but it was the day they closed Gordon E. Perdue High School in an official ceremony attended by students, members of the public and local dignitaries.

    I was there. I had graduated high school the year before, but I took the day off work at my summer job in order to be at the closing ceremonies. The event was not that good. There was a truly wince-worthy rendition of “The Greatest Love of All” by a bunch of students, teachers, and admin staff. There were insincere speeches, and the event ended with the student body’s drama queen reciting a poem she wrote about the school complete with dramatically-timed breaking of voice at the end.

    And yet, what happened on stage didn’t matter so much. For me, the event was, to lapse into both cliche and a bad pun, to provide closure to an important chapter of my life.

    I was one of the students who led the fight to keep my high school open. I had spent the better part of a year with my friends organizing students, arguing with school board members, writing briefs, talking to the media. It was the most politically involved I’ve ever been. It was the most significant I’ve ever felt. It was the most disillusioned I’ve ever been.

    I was only eighteen years old.

    Gordon E. Perdue High School opened in 1962. The school, named after a former chair of the board of education, was originally built in part to provide business and technical education at a time when neither were being offered in Oakville. Perdue was located at the very edge of Oakville’s downtown, and not the affluent edge either. In Oakville, Trafalgar Road is the dividing line between the affluent monster homes of East Oakville and the pre-fabs of West Oakville. Perdue was very definitely a part of West Oakville. It was an area with a large, working-class, immigrant populace, particularly from the Italian and Portuguese communities.

    Perdue’s location was the result of a not particularly far-sighted suburban planning strategy on the part of the then-board of education. In the early sixties, the majority of the town of Oakville’s population existed south of the major freeway, the Queen Elizabeth Way. The vast majority of High Schools—four out of five at the time—were built almost in a corridor along Lakeshore Road. The problem was, by the 1970s, the town was expanding northward, with only one high school (built in the mid-sixties almost as an afterthought; both my sisters went there) north of the QEW.

    By the mid-1980s, the number of students attending these schools had begun to diminish, but it had most significantly affected my school to the point where enrollment reached disastrously low levels, such that by 1987, Perdue had 500 students in a school built for 1000.

    Part of this was down to unfortuitiously-timed circumstance. The advent of Bill 30 in the Province of Ontario—which allowed Catholic Separate Schools to offer full, provincially-funded, secondary education programming—meant that a number of students who came to Perdue from Separate elementary schools now went to Oakville’s Separate high school instead. That said, a lot of it was design. As new developments sprang up, the new students were inevitably bussed to other high schools—schools that were becoming increasingly overcrowded. In fact, in the years leading up to the crisis that inevitably lead to Perdue’s closure, the Board of Education reversed several “boundary changes”—changes in catchment areas around the school (in particular the a booming subdivision directly north of the school)—that might have made the difference to Perdue in terms of enrollment, and would have provided relief to other schools.

    The reasons for doing this were, quite simply, political. Perdue was on the wrong side of the tracks, as it were. In the ‘70s, Perdue had been the target of some nasty press due to a drug bust that had been blown all out of proportion. It gave the school baggage it didn’t really need on top of being in a working-class neighbourhood.

    And yet, I went to Perdue during this time. In fact I chose to go to Perdue and took public transit to get there every morning. (Perdue had been recommended to me by the then-director of education for the school board because it was smaller). I can honestly say it didn’t deserve its “wrong side of the tracks” reputation. It was true that Perdue was like any high school in that it had its own soap opera of student cliques and teachers you wanted to avoid and classes you wished you never set foot in. But there were also teachers who inspired, and places you could belong, no matter how geeky you were. I was living proof of both those things. In fact, by the time I reached Grade 13, 30% of the student body came from outside its catchment area, often for the same reasons that I chose to come to Perdue.

    But it all came to a sudden, stunned halt in October of 1987, when students learned that Halton County’s Board of Education was beginning a process that may well lead to the closure of the school. The Board informed the school that a study committee made up of five trustees and five area ratepayers would look at three options: to expand the attendance area, to offer specialty programs, or to close the school.

    Right from the start, closure was weighted heavily against us. The option that would save us, expanding the attendance area by changing boundaries, was the “third rail” of local school board politics. No school board trustee in one of the affluent wards surrounding us would dare go along with it, even if it was the right thing to do at the time. Especially when the Provincial government of the time had pretty much stated that it would not fund the building of any new high schools with the existing complement of schools. For a new one to be built in the north, an existing one would have to close.

    There were other complicating factors. At the same time all this came down, it was announced that Oakville Trafalgar High School, the east Oakville high school—whose 74 year-old building was becoming decrepit—was getting a new school. And when Bill 30—which allowed Separate (Catholic) High Schools to now be provincially funded—took effect in the Province of Ontario, it allowed for the wholesale transfer of Public Schools to the Separate School system. (In November of that year, that controversy hit the fan when schools in Hamilton and Toronto were forcibly transferred amidst public outcry).

    Looking back, it’s hard not to see that the odds were stacked against us, particularly in light of what followed. But at the time, I was just turning eighteen, and I had just seen The Untouchables. I wanted to be Eliot Ness, sweeping down on the advancing mobsters at the border on horseback with an Ennio Morricone soundtrack behind me.

    And, metaphorically, speaking, that’s just what I did.

    I wrote my first political tract in my first month of Grade 13. I wrote it because I was worried the school was going to get bulldozed unless students mobilized. It was titled, dramatically, “Do Something!” It went through about something like ten drafts (under the watchful eye of Miss Ross, the Librarian and Community Liaison officer). Perdue’s Principal was a tough but self-effacing guy named Ozzie Calderelli. He was a talented leader, and he wasn’t about to roll over and play dead either. He allowed a group of us to have assemblies with the senior students where I could present my case to them.

    I wrote impassionedly: “We must show the community that we really care. The public, the students and the committee must feel that Perdue is a good school and worth the political risk of redefining the boundaries. We must put forth a sense of confidence in our school.”

    “Ultimately, the question is this: Would you rather see the school die while you reign in apathy and resignation, or would you do something to preserve the quality of education that Perdue has provided for over 25 years? Let’s choose the latter option. Let’s do something!

    I’d like to say that my speech roused people from the depths of the apathy and boredom that only teenagers can demonstrate so adroitly. It didn’t, though. I remember seeing most of the people at the assemblies—the guys from the football team I really wanted to ignite to the cause—were bored.

    But, as time passed, the students who cared as much about keeping this school open as I did began to emerge from unlikely places. There was Sue Bennett, a popular grade 11 student on her way to becoming an Ontario Scholar who went to private school before Perdue but loved our school. There was Luigi Mastrangelo, a scrappy guy from the tech wing who in October of ‘87 managed to get 600 names onto a petition to the Board of Education—a Bunyan-esque feat of political organizing to be sure. There was Danny Rialti, a guy who brought passion even if the grammar in his speechwriting left a lot to be desired. Even more people than that emerged as time went on. Our school’s new motto, which came from our float at the Santa Claus Parade that Christmas, was “Keep The Spirit Alive” and we were going to make that happen.

    And so we went to public meetings, the first of many with the Director of Education (a man with the truly unfortunate name of Wally Beevor). And there we got to meet some of the other players in our story. There were parents, led by a highly articulate engineer by the name of Graham Norgate. Mr. Norgate distinguished himself right from the start, acting as a gadfly who kept pestering the Board members with questions of the equity of their boundary divisions. There was our own school board Trustee, Janis Millman, who went to my parents’ church, who was sympathetic to our cause. And there were the other trustees from Oakville, who were not. But more about them, later.

    Graham Norgate got himself onto the study committee made up of Board Trustees and Ratepayers and as a student group we were among the people to present to the study committee. (My friend Bob and I spent the night before editing together a video we made interviewing students on a super-8 video camera. It was my first foray into filmmaking.)

    At first things looked, strangely, promising. The study committee met and discussed the issues, and a majority decision came out in favour of recommending the school stay open.

    But after the initial flush of success, the truth was much, much, murkier, the study committee vote came down 6-4: Five ratepayers, all parents of students,  plus the local school board trustee. The other trustees had voted against. The parents were pushing for boundary changes; the trustees were resolutely avoiding the third rail.

    It was February 1988 and the fun was about to begin.


    Posted by graeme | (4) Comments | Permalink

    << Accidents Waiting To Happen   |   Main   |   The Day They Closed My High School - Part Two >>

    Robert Craig  on  01/10  at  01:17 PM

    Not only did the video interview students, but we also interviewed various staff at the school including a staff person in the cafeteria who didn’t want to be videotaped.  She was so impassioned about the school, and had amazing things to say from her view from the other side of the cafeteria line.

    If only we had more superior editing capabilities than a couple of VCRs hooked up to the Sony Camcorder.

    (I stumbled on the blog - as I was clearing out some old email, and found a piece of spam from one of those class reunion sites.  It then prompted a series of random searches…and here I am.)

    graeme  on  01/25  at  12:20 AM

    BOB CRAIG!!! Good Lord! How I’ve been waiting for you to surface on Facebook. We’ve all been. Great to hear from you.

    I had forgotten about that woman from the cafeteria. You’re right. I really need to dig out the VHS tape I have of the raw footage and the edited version and transfer it to DVD.

    Do you remember Mr. Scott coming in every 10 minutes to see how we were doing while editing it? The administration seemed very worried about what we would do at the time, even though it turned out a) fine and b) quite positive.

    Fiona Smith (Stryjak)  on  02/14  at  04:39 PM

    This was pretty cool, stumbling upon history, on the internet, of a very formative place for me. Thanks Graeme!

    Adrian Norgate  on  11/05  at  08:38 AM

    Wow, what a flashback. I just stumbled on this while I was searching my father’s name (who just passed away recently). I loved Perdue and was absolutely smashed when all this happened back in the day.
    Some of the best times, and worse, were at that school haha.

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