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Neighborhoods and Neighborhood Schools

I spent early Tuesday afternoon walking a neighborhood with other teachers from my district. We participated in an annual event where books, water, and art supplies were distributed via a red wagon and cowbell. Because this event happens weekly, children and parents know that the cowbell is the signal that the red wagon has arrived.

During one of the stops, a teacher asked a grandmother which school her grandsons attended. She replied that they attended a school that wasn't near them, and commented that life was easier when the neighborhood school was open nearby. I didn't comment, but as a school board member and teacher, I know how important it is to maintain a budget that's in the black. And that goal is compounded by Michigan's emphasis on "school choice," as if choice alone will improve student achievement. And at the same time of dealing with frequent student movement from district to district, districts must also analyze their expenditures on buildings, maintenance, and grounds, trying to maximize dollars on classroom spending.

I also recognize that the closing of neighborhood schools is occurring everywhere, so I wanted to see what others had to say about this. I'm a fan of Diane Ravitch's work, even though I've been slowly digesting Reign of Error for about a year now. In this National Education Association piece about The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Ravitch talks about the importance of the neighborhood school: "As we lose neighborhood public schools, we lose the one local institution where people congregate and mobilize to solve local problems, where individuals learn to speak up and debate and engage in democratic give-and-take with their neighbors." And I think she's spot-on. Schools can be nebulous places to parents. Maybe they had their own negative experiences there in the past, or they are located in a neighborhood that they don't travel to very often. We have to keep this in mind when parents and guardians enter our doors and take every action possible to make them feel welcome. They are our partners in teaching. And if they don't feel comfortable, can't get to our school, or if there is some other obstacle, then we lose out on valuable conversations to "solve local problems," like Ravitch stated.

While walking the neighborhood, I also recalled reading Gloria Ladson-Billings' The Dreamkeepers in college. One thing that I took away, and that I think appears over and over again in her work, is that teachers need to be familiar with the communities they serve, and it also helps to have deeply established roots in those communities. This was the first time that I had actually walked the neighborhoods of the students and families that I serve. And it was a humbling and eye-opening afternoon. I will remember this heading into the school year. I could go on and on about poverty, as over 70% of my school receives free and reduced lunch, but that isn't what I took away. These parents and children care when given access, and they respond to friendly faces and encouragement.

Teachers, as we head into the school year, remember that we have to tell our stories while listening and acknowledging others' stories. We have to share the wonderful things that we are doing in our classrooms with our students and for their families. Let's keep our heads held high, keep working hard, and show that there really is no replacement for a community school that responds to students', families', and a community's hopes for their students.

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