Brussels Public School reborn as Old Colony Mennonite School
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
After being closed by the Avon Maitland District School Board several years ago, the former Brussels Public School is having life breathed into it once again in the form of the Brussels Old Colony Christian Mennonite School.
After the Municipality of Huron East bought the school with the initial intention of creating a small business incubator, members of the Mennonite community contacted the municipality hoping to rent one classroom where 12 children would be educated. The school has now expanded to include just under 130 children, serving just under 50 families in seven of the school’s former classrooms, including the library.
On Friday, The Citizen sat down with the three-member board that oversees the school, which includes a chair and a treasurer. The members spoke to The Citizen on the condition that their names, or any of the names of the school’s students or teachers, not be published, in accordance with the beliefs of their faith.
The school’s catchment area is far-flung, with many students coming from the Listowel area. However, one board member says that if you were to draw a circle encapsulating communities within a 45-minute drive of Brussels, that circle would contain the vast majority of the student body.
The board itself is spread throughout that community. One member is from Brussels, while another is from around Listowel and the third is from Fordwich.
Members say the students come from a number of different schooling backgrounds as well. Prior to the establishment of the Old Colony School, some students were being home-schooled, while others attended public schools and some even attended a private school in Donegal, just east of Newry.
One board member says the school was born out of a concept from two teachers and six parents, who proposed the idea for a private school. Meetings were held and the details were hashed out and in June, 2013, members of the community contacted Huron East staff about renting a room at the Brussels Business and Cultural Centre, formerly the Brussels Public School.
The first day of classes was held in September of 2013, and since then the school has continued to steadily grow.
By the end of the first school year, in the spring of 2014, the school had expanded to two classrooms. In September, 2014, it expanded to include three classrooms and now it rents seven – nearly the entire school – running classes from Kindergarten to Grade 7.
Members of the board say that the school operates just as any other school does. Parents in the community pay tuition so their children can attend the school and the funds are reinvested, paying for supplies and anything else that might be needed.
Huron East Chief Administrative Officer Brad Knight says that while those behind the Old Colony School have invested a lot of the community’s money into the school to fully supply the seven classrooms currently in use, they received a little help from the Avon Maitland Board when they first started up.
When Brussels Public School closed, the Avon Maitland Board moved its equipment and supplies to other facilities, but there were a number of chairs, tables and desks that were surplus to the board. With the Brussels Community Bible Chapel already in the school, this furniture was made available to the church, with whatever was left going to the Old Colony School when they first started.
After that first classroom, however, the Old Colony community has been on its own and doing great.
Religion remains at the centre of the school’s teachings and it is the reason the community sought to create its own school, rather than to depend on the public school system or home-schooling.
“We want [the students] all to know to live for Jesus,” said one board member. “That is most important. We want them to learn about the Bible, because they are our future church.”
All three board members agree that the school is very much about educating the young people who will one day carry the torch for the community’s church when the board members, who are all rather young now, are “old and grey”.
But while religion is the focus, an average day at the Old Colony School runs very much like any other elementary school day. The school starts at 9 a.m. and lets out at 3:20 p.m. and in between there are lunch and snack breaks, recess and lessons that span all of the major traditional subjects like math, science and reading.
Since the school began, one board member says he has seen a great improvement in the community’s children in everything from how they dress to the language they use.
The board makes all the decisions for the school, but acts as a liaison between the school and the community. They also serve as a place teachers can go if they’re having a problem with a student, or if something is wrong at the school.
The relationship between the board, the school and the community has been great, board members say, and the relationship between those behind the school and the Municipality of Huron East has also been great.
“So far, it has been excellent,” one of the men said.
Knight echoed his sentiment, saying the school and those who run it have been great to deal with.
He said that Huron East Council always hoped the building would have an educational component to it, whether it be used for college courses or re-training options, but he never dreamed that it would evolve into a full-fledged school.
“It’s been a real co-operative effort,” Knight said.
With the building’s needs always changing depending on the season, Knight says tenants within the school have always been accommodating. He cited an example of the co-operation during the recent federal election.
The former Brussels school has served as the returning office for the last provincial and federal elections and the municipality had rented space to the returning officer well before the commencement of classes in September.
Members of the Brussels Old Colony School contacted Knight in August, stating that enrolment was higher than expected and they wanted to rent another classroom. At that time, there was nothing available, but Huron East worked out a deal between the Brussels Community Bible Chapel and the returning officer to share one of the rooms rented out by the church and everybody involved worked together to make it work
Later this year, in fact, the school has arranged to run its first school bus to Brussels every day. It has yet to make its first trip and already there are enough students dedicated to fill it.
Knight says that from the municipality’s standpoint, he couldn’t be happier.
When the school was closed and put up for sale, Huron East was in a unique position in that the process for the sale of surplus property required the Avon Maitland Board to give notice to a number of agencies, including the property’s home municipality.
He acknowledges that there was considerable risk at the time and that it was a very unique idea that council had – to create a small business incubator out of a former public school. But it has worked and it’s now being emulated throughout Huron and neighbouring counties based on the success of the former Brussels Public School.
The building is now turning a small profit for the municipality, despite the decision to purchase the building being far from unanimous at the time.
He reiterated that it has been a “real pleasant experience” with the school, saying that it is a nice feeling to walk into the school and to see children running through the halls and artwork on the walls once again.