Education Opinion

‘What Should Education Become?’

By Matthew Lynch — May 28, 2014 4 min read
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Today’s guest blog comes to us courtesy of Patrick R. Potyondy, a doctoral candidate at the Ohio State Department of History who specializes in the history of urban policy and education in the United States. He has served as the editor of the Urban History Association’s newsletter and as managing editor for Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective. He can be reached at potyondy.1@osu.edu. The author would like to thank Matthew Lynch for inviting him to guest-blog on his site.

The primary question this blog asks--"what should education become?"--is a serious one. To give the best answer, we must combine some of the best concepts that urban and education research has to offer. It also means looking to the past for viable alternatives to improve the entire system, not just individual schools.

Schools are strongest when they sit at the center of the surrounding community. And they can be improved when that notion of community is expanded to include people from diverse ethnic, racial, and economic backgrounds. One of the most important jobs teachers have, after all, is to expose their students to different points of view. The makeup of the classroom--both the people in it and the physical environment around them--can help do this.

Placemaking advocates ask, “What if we built our communities around places?” The built environment--how people use it and interact it with it--can shape attitudes and values. When you make schools look like prisons, kids won’t know the difference. When you make them look like a place that matters, students and the public will take notice. A lot can happen inside of any building, but the Department of Education in tandem with local districts should strive to help transform all school grounds into places students, teachers, and parents want to be.

By working together, governments at all levels can help ensure that public schools act as anchor institutions for the cities they serve. Although analysts most often cite major employers as examples, there is no reason why school districts cannot transform their campuses into a broader conception of an anchor institution. This might mean pooling resources so that schools can better serve their urban communities that are only becoming more diverse. As a social anchor institution, a school can develop the community around them, just as the community develops the school.

This idea is not entirely new, with one of the best examples having arisen out of the 1960s civil rights era. During this period, organizations such as the Urban League and the NAACP advocated for educational parks.

As I explain in chapter two of Reimagining Education Reform and Innovation, edited by Matthew Lynch, educational park plans envisioned large, centralized, locally-controlled K-12 campuses. Proponents, such as the Philadelphia and Columbus Urban Leagues, hoped they would breakdown racial and economic segregation while offering enough to offset anti-civil rights and anti-federalism backlash.

Cities across the nation considered implementing educational parks for a variety of reasons; eliminating racial inequality was foremost among them. Unfortunately, cost, bureaucratic inertia, and racism combined to defeat the educational park proposal in Columbus. But this does not mean there are not lessons to be learned, past policies to draw from.

Combining both the placemaking via urban design and a socially-expanded notion of the anchor institution has the potential to improve our school system. But this policy can also push beyond the boundaries of what we commonly think of when we think of “school” (too often an unrealistic vision of the one-room variety comes to mind).

If the location is desirable, if the buildings are well-kept and architecturally attractive, and if the school-as-institution is socially inclusive, then community-based placemaking can occur. This, in turn, will make school campuses a desirable location for everything from local community meetings to political debates to theater productions to employment opportunities.

This could go a long way toward achieving the ideals set forth by the Urban League’s 1968 proposal: “The park is the physical manifestation of egalitarian education.... The premise of education on the park is a respect of human dignity and individual worth. Conversely, the park rejects invidious distinctions based upon race, class, religion, or national origin as well as any notion of inferiority of individuals or groups of individuals.”

All this may strike you as idealistic in a cynical age, but some districts are already working to make it happen. The Henderson-Hopkins school in Baltimore is a great example. Set in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, it “aspires to be a campus for the whole area -- with a community center, library, auditorium and gym.”

The story in The New York Times goes on to quote Christopher Shea, president of the not-for-profit overseeing the redevelopment plan: “Baltimore demolished many great old school buildings in the 1950s and ‘60s and replaced them with incredibly depressing places. We wanted to go in the opposite direction. We wanted Henderson-Hopkins to be an inspiration and magnet for the neighborhood.”

Our schools are at their best when they unify us, when they draw upon all our collective resources whether those are economic, cultural, or intellectual. We should strive for a system that realizes that potential.

The opinions expressed in Education Futures: Emerging Trends in K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.