Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Are We Abandoning Our Neighborhood Schools?

By Daniel Rehor, Intern at the Institute for Educational Leadership

In the community where I grew up, there are two school options for students: the neighborhood public school and home schooling. My hometown is located in a small rural, fruit farming community thirty minutes east of Rochester, NY. I graduated with a class of about eighty. Although the school hasn’t yielded many future Harvard grads, it has done an admirable job at providing children with a well-rounded education.

As my brothers, sister and I approached school age, my mom questioned whether she should home school us to personalize our learning, or send us to the public school where we would share our learning. Ultimately, she decided that it was important for her children to share their educational experiences with the other children in our community and support the public school.

As I progressed through middle and high school, I remember feeling somewhat disconnected from my peers; I grew up in a far more liberal minded household than most people in my hometown. At times I resented being stuck in classes with my fellow students because we didn’t always share a similar mindset.

It wasn’t until college that I recognized the importance of my shared educational experiences. Sharing the experience of school with those who had different opinions and lifestyles helped me develop an ability to appreciate others points of view. I understood what my mom wanted us to learn: empathy.

In urban areas across the U.S., charter schools have opened to provide an alternative to the nearby low-performing public schools. Parents who are desperate to provide a better education for their children apply in vast numbers to the charter schools. Because the schools receive so many applicants, a lottery system is frequently adopted to select which parents gain the coveted spots for their children; the students not chosen typically return to the neighborhood public school.

As many students leave for charters, the money that districts once spent on public schools, move to charter schools. The neighborhood public school’s attendance and resources dry up, leading to possible closures, which then leaves the communities children without a viable neighborhood school.

Everyone can understand why parents whose children attend persistently low-performing public schools apply to charter schools - they want their children to receive the best education possible. Unfortunately, by leaving their neighborhood schools that must accept everyone, these parents are unintentionally leaving other children in their community to an under-resourced school.

When a child’s neighborhood school closes, they are usually sent to a near by public school, but the nearest public schools are not always so close and the trip to get there is not always safe. Gavin, a 12 year old from Chicago, would have had to travel twenty-two blocks through rough neighborhoods to get to his new school. Gavin is now homeschooled, but not for reasons my mom considered homeschooling me. He has neither a safe school to attend nor a safe commute.

The neighborhood school is important in all communities. In my school, every parent that pitched in became a role model for students and supported the parents that had to work two jobs. This only happened because all the parents had a vested interest in that school: their children.

When parents in these urban areas move their children from the neighborhood school, they choose not to invest their time in the community; that is their right. But the consequence of their choice has a direct affect on the closure of the neighborhood school which children still attend.

It is no wonder that a group of students, parents and activists joined forces on a “Journey for Justice” on January 29th to expose the educational inequalities that are resulting from the U.S. Department of Education’s acceptance of for-profit educational institutions, like charter schools, taking over failing public schools.

Journey for Justice proposed to the Department an alternative option to the shuttering of their neighborhood schools: the Sustainable Success Model. This model, originally developed by Communities for Excellent Public Schools (CEPS) would require schools to adopt four practices as part of a comprehensive school improvement plan:
- partner with parents, educators, students and community members to assess the needs of the school
implement research-based reforms
- address essential social, emotional and physical needs of students, and
- recognize parent, student and community leadership as key to sustainable student success

By engaging the whole community in improving the school, Journey for Justice argues that comprehensive and lasting improvements can be made. The Coalition for Community Schools at the Institute for Educational Leadership supports this model and will seek ways to encourage its adoption as an acceptable model to implement a School Improvement Grant as well as a component of reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Although there may be no immediate response to their request, the Journey for Justice movement signals a growing frustration around the United States. Jose Valsquez, a parent from Oakland who spoke at the hearing asked officials to “Listen and entertain the possibility that the policies and practices of the U.S. Department of Education [are] exacerbating the problem.” As this sentiment of frustration continues, the Coalition will work with our community school partners throughout the country to help them advocate for the best policies that will help their children succeed.

Daniel is a graduating senior at SUNY - Brockport

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