Where Everybody Knows Your Name

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Where Everybody Knows Your Name SOCIOLOGIST JAMES COLEMAN, IN HIS book Public and Private Schools: The Impact of Communities, argues that school failure for many children is directly related to the erosion of "social capital'' in contemporary society. Coleman defines social capital as "the norms, the social networks, and the relationships between adults and children that are of value for the child's growing up''--specifically the family and the community. In the community, social capital exists in the "interest, even the intrusiveness, of one adult in the activities of someone else's child.'' The deterioration of family and community, says Coleman, has led to a fundamental vacuum--a loss of institutions that "induce the kinds of attitudes, effort, and conception of self that children and youth need to succeed in school and as adults.'' The article on Newtown, Mo., beginning on page 40 is, in a very real sense, about social capital. Rural communities like Newtown are among the few remaining places in this nation where children find close and caring support from a community of adults. The teachers at Newtown-Harris School know not only their pupils and their parents but also their grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, and friends. As one of the teachers says, "In Newtown, everybody knows everybody, and the familiarity--indeed the intimacy--is part of what makes Newtown's school so special.'' But, as the title of the article implies, schools like Newtown-Harris are becoming endangered species as the rural population in the United States continues its steady decline. And when the schools close, the communities-- along with their rare social capital--also die. There is a sad paradox here. The very characteristics we are seeking to create in our urban and suburban schools already exist in our disappearing rural schools: real parental involvement in schools and local interest and support (i.e., social capital); small classes; flexibility in school structure and scheduling; collaboration among teachers and cooperative learning among students; more personal attention for students; the elimination of tracking and allowing kids to move at their own pace; and the use of technology to facilitate learning. Newtown-Harris School--like most rural schools--has all of this but is still on the verge of extinction. Someone once said, "Only a fool would attempt to stop the march of time.'' And the direction of that march in this nation has clearly been--and will continue to be--toward an urban society. But does that mean nothing can or should be done to preserve schools like Newtown-Harris for as long as possible? Is the only solution to go on consolidating such schools into ever larger unified schools that ultimately embody so many of the negative characteristics that the current school reform movement laments? As long as there are students to learn and teachers willing to teach them, small, rural schools have an important function to perform. They die because eventually they cannot find the necessary funding to continue or because they are too small to meet all the academic requirements imposed upon them by state law. Both of those are policy issues. If the state deemed rural schools worth saving, it could allocate the necessary resources. After all, if a school like NewtownHarris disappears, its 83 students will still have to be educated. And those students would have to be bused (perhaps two or more hours each day) to another school, which very likely would also be struggling with financial problems. Economies of scale would probably result in a somewhat lower per-pupil expenditure, but what the students lose may be far greater than the monetary savings of transferring them. The Newtown teachers and administrators have a tacit agreement that if they cannot provide their children with a "quality education,'' they will close the school. But a high-quality education is by no means synonymous with state education requirements. Good teachers and motivated students in an environment like the one in NewtownHarris School can light the lamp of lifelong learning, even if their curriculum is not as broad as that in the "shopping mall high school.'' And with the inventive use of technology and distance-learning programs, rural schools can offer their students a more-than-adequate curriculum. Milton Eisenhower, who often reminisced about his childhood with Ike in rural Kansas, once said: "The essence of nostalgia is the awareness that what has been will never be again.'' All the more reason for doing all that can be done now to nourish schools like Newtown-Harris.

Vol. 02, Issue 08, Page 1-24

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