When Schools Were Part of the Neighborhood ...

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In the small town where I was raised, our schools were a part of our community, within walking distance of our homes, staffed by teachers who were our neighbors. The same teachers taught my older brothers, my younger sister, and myself and knew my family through years of contact. My parents could call them at home with concerns, just as the teachers felt comfortable calling my parents with updates. No one fell through the cracks, because we were all a part of the same community and wanted that community to thrive and to build a positive future through the nurture and education of its next generation.

When my son was ready to begin school, my husband and I searched for the same environment. We found a similarly cohesive community with a neighborhood school that provided the same attention and camaraderie. Our son, who is bright and very quiet, found the support and encouragement from his teachers that may not have been available to a quiet student in a large educational setting. He was encouraged to pursue his interest in theater technology, computer design, and playing in the band. A librarian gave him access to computer programs during his free time that would not have been readily available to all students. A teacher encouraged him to talk with her by e-mail over the weekends, encouraging him to read extensively and to explore information beyond that being presented in the classroom. Unfortunately, this small, rural school fed into a much larger middle and high school program that would not afford the same intimate relationships.

However, in our subsequent search for a private school, we were taken aback by the number of schools that openly pigeonholed students as either athletes or actors ("If he doesn't play lacrosse, there's always the drama program"), academics or socializers. We searched hard for a school that would allow a student to explore all avenues and to embrace even stereotypically different interests, a school that would look at each student as a whole person with potentially varied strengths. We were blessedly successful, and our son continues to thrive.

Part of our interest in an environment that provides flexibility in a student's growth and close contact with teachers comes from our own teaching experience. My husband and I have taught in both large and small, public and private schools, schools that merged many communities and schools that were smaller and drew from the immediate neighborhood. Through this experience, we have seen that the smaller environment works better and that the approach of some private institutions can prevent students from falling through the cracks.

By keeping schools within their own neighborhoods and encouraging teachers to live within the same neighborhood, there is built a commitment to a quality living environment. With the loss of the nuclear family, it is even more important to provide communities that support each other through close relationships. Neighborhood identity can foster a commitment from families to a quality of life that is ensured through a daily awareness of what their children are experiencing in school. Volunteering during or after school can be expected and encouraged by the school's administration, while teachers can be expected to volunteer within the community, building relationships with parents and other neighborhood members. Though keeping schools neighborhood-based would diminish ethnic and economic diversity, the quality of the educational program could outweigh this concern through supplemental programs of service education in communities of differing makeup.

At present, my husband and I teach at a school that meets as a whole faculty once a week to review the status of our students both academically and socially. This is a time-consuming meeting, but it allows for teachers to share concerns about individual students, to detect behaviors that may be evident in a variety of areas, to create a plan for additional support where needed, and to see progress or lack thereof from week to week. A clear record is kept, which allows administrators to see warning signs over a period of time and to help guide them in deciding when it is important to draw together the school psychologist, parents, teachers, and the student for counseling or support. It also can indicate erratic behavior, whether academic or social, that may suggest the need for professional evaluation.

How many times have the headlines alarmed us with school shootings? How often is it initially reported that these students were not problems in the school community, only to be told later that they had been in trouble before, or that they were misfits who were harassed, or children from unsupervised homes? If their schools had been small, neighborhood schools with families involved in the school and teachers involved in the communities, where teachers met weekly to discuss each student, where students were encouraged to get involved in areas of interest to them, with mentors guiding them and challenging them, maybe these children would have been noticed before it was too late.

The U.S. government needs to re-evaluate our educational system. We need to prioritize education. We need to fund the arts in all grades, to seek ways to encourage students to channel their creativity and talents for good by providing close supervision, understanding, and interest in each student through mentoring by teachers, parents, and community members. We need to take responsibility for the future of our neighborhoods by creating a sense of ownership for each neighborhood's school by the members of the community.

When we look at the school killings in Colorado this past April, if the student gunmen had attended a small school, where everyone compared notes, where neighbors were involved, where a teacher would have encouraged rocket-building and computer programming, might not these students have been able to channel their energies in a safer and less destructive direction? Would association with an informal gang have been necessary for them to feel accepted and to belong? Would the principal have had to check on the students' records with other administrators to find out if they had been in disciplinary trouble before? Is this why there is a growing need for charter schools, magnet schools, and private schools? Are we losing sight of what is most important in education in our quest for diversity and saving money through the building of larger and larger schools?

With a presidential campaign in the offing, let's prioritize and make a commitment to revitalizing, re-evaluating, and restructuring our educational system to one that faces the needs of our present society, but most importantly, the needs of our children, our country's future.

Anne M. Weeks, an Advanced Placement English teacher, is the director of college guidance at the Oldfields School in Glencoe, Md., and a reading consultant for the College Board.

Vol. 18, Issue 43, Page 45

Published in Print: August 4, 1999, as When Schools Were Part of the Neighborhood ...
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