Wednesday, January 14, 2009

How the Other Half Lives

Athens Clarke County is trying to swallow the idea of the neighborhood school. In today's issue, author Kevan Williams pens an article that brings up many points about ACC schools. These are some of the same points that New Orleanians have been wrangling over for years about our own schools.

Which is better, a neighborhood school that is the focus of a community or a consolidated school miles and miles away? Which one is more advantageous administratively, and which ones are more cost effective?

If the neighborhood school model is adopted, will those schools be used for more than just school? Will those schools encourage nearby revitalization of neighborhoods?

What role does aesthetic play in a student’s education?

What role does aesthetic play in neighborhood development?

What role does transportation play in school zoning?

Can and should education policy dovetail with historical preservation?

I’ll segue with an anecdote. I drove to Athens in November, and I brought a friend from New Orleans with me. I had met this friend when we were both 2007 teachNOLA fellows, and he is in his second year of teaching at-risk youth in the Recovery School District. He taught in one of New Orleans’ “historic” and “neighborhood” schools last year that had experienced the dual catastrophe of administrative neglect and federal flood. Those both were compounded by the slowness of educational recovery post-disaster.

As we were driving around Athens, we rolled past Cedar Shoals High School. Knowing that we shared an interest in educational disparities, I pointed out the front of CSHS. Yes, it looks like a loading dock, but the parking lot is at least paved and the entrances are well marked. It was assumed from the look of this building that buses were expected to arrive and depart in timely and orderly fashion before and after the school day.

We continued driving, and he was amazed at the size of the school, how well kept the buildings and grounds appeared, and noticed the construction of the fence on the outside. He was shocked to see the football stadium, baseball field, practice grounds and additional parking behind the main building, and uttered several expletives.

And that’s the rub. Utility is in the eye of the beholder. Author Kevan Williams sees Cedar Shoals as an example of school development done wrong (and he has valid points). But two folks who have taught in New Orleans saw something to be aspired to.

When a community decides to invest in neighborhood or consolidated schools (or some form of both) that decision succeeds or fails based on the people you have running the show. You can have a beautiful historic building whose student body walks to school fail just as easily as the consolidated big box school on the outskirts of town. Success depends on competent administrators, a responsive school system, and involved parents and members of the community.

New Orleans had many, many neighborhood schools, and is now dealing with a generally unwanted consolidation & balkanization plan (that is, there are no real districts, so the system can eliminate old neighborhood schools and consolidate students in other schools without explanation). But how effective were those neighborhood schools before the disaster? What shape were they in? Despite a few success stories, the system as a whole was struggling. The historic nature of many of the buildings was left to deteriorate even before the disaster, and now afterwards the neglect has continued. What is the purpose of having an “old city block campus to present public fronts on three or four sides” if those public fronts are of boarded up doors, ‘do not enter’ signage and graffiti?

You can holler about historic preservation and neighborhood schools until you are blue in the face, but if you can’t make sure the system takes care of these assets you will lose them. Athens will face the stigma attached to such schools, and fight the system that has apparently already abandoned or written off these locations, unless it operates very effectively. My immediate thought would be to refurbish and save these old schools by finding charter school organizations that would be willing to partner with ACC to do so.



DADvocate said...

I like high schools of a limited size, maybe 1200-1500 students. This allows for students and teachers to know each other, plenty of sports and other extra-curicular activitiss without students getting lost in the shuffle.

If a school is too small, it may be hard to get enough students for some activities. My son's high school is about 850 students. Being the only public high school in the county, they have lots of extra-curricular activities but some are minimalized. Although they have an excellent band director, the marching band is small, half the size of my old high school of 1,200.

I'm sure your friend would drool over my son's high school though. The football field is getting artificial turf this summer. Plans are being finalized to provide all high school students with a Mac notebook computer next year too.

In a sense, this is a neighborhood and consolidated school. Virtually everyone in the county considers it their high school and supports it. This personal identification with the school makes it "neighborhood." Since it serves a 250 square mile area and there used to be other public high schools are recently as 15 years ago, it is a consolidation of other high schools.

The administrators and teachers are what make this school work though. I don't know if you saw my post of Nov., 2007. A couple of the administrators wrote a book about what they had done and how they did it. Until the current set of administators took over, this was a very average school.

Dante said...

For those unaware, Clarke used to allow parents to choose which school in the county their kids went to. It was a polite form of socioeconomic segregation. The middle class parents who cared signed up for the same schools. The housing project parents didn't care and their kids ended up in the other schools. It was hideously expensive to transport the kids so that practice ended. That put projects kids and middle class kids in the same schools together. What did the middle class parents do about it? A lot of them left. Since school choice ended, property in neighboring Oconee County has shot up in value. The same house there costs you at least 15% more these days but it's cheaper than living in Clarke and paying private school tuition.

What does that have to do with "neighborhood" schools? For starters, I doubt Clarke is interested in neighborhood schools from an aesthetic perspective. If that were the case, they wouldn't have bulldozed the old high school.

That leads me to assume they're interested in shrinking their school zones. I have to wonder if Clarke isn't trying to appease those middle class parents who won't even consider putting their kids in the Clarke County school system in its present state by building pockets of middle-classdom disguised as "neighborhood" schools.