What it means to lose a community school

Many communities in the United States are closing their schools, though for different reasons, all of which are pushing towards consolidation, packing more students into a smaller space. Officials justify this on the grounds that funds can be used more efficiently this way, potentially increasing the offerings available at a given school, but not everyone—parents, teachers, and children—is a fan, and the practice is also extremely disruptive, and destructive, for communities. It’s the result of refusing to declare education a priority in the United States, and it will have long term consequences if the nation can’t bring itself to commit to actually funding education.

In rural areas, the legendary one room schoolhouse is steadily vanishing from the landscape, with children being bused into larger communities to go to school, sometimes across considerable distance and at great cost. While most small schools in rural communities focused historically on primary education (and, yes, in separate rooms by grade, usually), officials argue that they’re expensive to maintain for any age, and that students would be better served by a school with more ‘resources.’ That means getting up absurdly early to get on the bus, traveling a significant distance to get to and from school, being thrown into an environment where students don’t know most of the people they go to school with.

In urban areas, schools are being closed for lack of funding or because they’re ‘low performing,’ by which officials mean that students can’t dance like the ponies they’re supposed to be on student testing. Those students are in turn being consolidated and shuffled to other schools in other communities, some taking long bus rides—and many taking public transit due to limited busing options. Even if public transit requires lengthy, inconvenient trips with poorly-timed transfers because it’s not designed to get students from one community to another, that doesn’t matter—and tellingly, transit in low-income communities is often awkwardly timed for complex reasons like wanting to keep poor people out of wealthy neighbourhoods.

In both cases, there are a lot of net effects. Whether rural or urban, students miss connections with their own communities and neighbourhoods. Within either environment, people form connections—whether it’s a group of people in a small town or people in a cluster of blocks who know each other. Children are safer within these structured communities, they have friends, they know which neighbours to turn to. Moreover, they’re active participants in the community environment, instead of being pushed out to the margins. People see kids around. They’re used to them. They’re part of the landscape. They’re included in community events. Without a community or neighbourhood school, that’s not the case, and students become more like an abstract idea than an actual reality. That’s bad for communities, and it contributes to intergenerational fracturing—even as kids are pushed out, older adults and disabled people are also being whisked away to long term ‘care’ facilities because community supports like funding for personal care assistants is also pulled, so a community becomes more homogenous.

Big schools generally aren’t good for students. Especially when they’re faced with an influx of new students from surrounding areas who have just been forcibly transferred from their home schools. Class sizes balloon, and teachers have difficulty providing their students with the services they need. Students are assessed on the basis of test performance, not their actual abilities, talents, and personalities. Skills go missed—a student with a knack for mathematics or the potential to be a strong musician is drowned out in a sea of students, all of whom need attention.

Conversely, students who need help are also missed, or are written off with ‘behavioural problems’ instead of being supported. Learning disabilities are treated as evidence of laziness and a reason to throw a kid away, rather than a sign that something might be wrong and a kid might need an assessment. Frustrated, bored, frightened, overstimulated, and stressed kids might ‘act out,’ but their behaviours are more complicated than that. In a crowded, rushed school environment, they’re sent straight to detention. Not coincidentally, the schools that are closing are in low-income neighbourhoods, many of which are occupied predominantly by people of colour, and many of the students being targeted for detention, suspension, and expulsion are also students of colour—particularly disabled students who haven’t been diagnosed or aren’t being accommodated as they should be.

Losing neighbourhood schools is about rupturing communities, and yet this really isn’t factored into discussions about whether, when, and how to close a school. Even as communities rally around their schools and try to save them, officials give up on them, and people have won victories in these cases on only a handful of occasions. Even when people dig in their heels and insist that their children have a right to education, education in their community with people they know and in a setting they call home, they’re ignored by the decisionmakers, who claim ‘funds’ but often have more complex motives.

The United States isn’t committing itself to education. It hasn’t been for a long time. Closing schools, shifting students, and denying kids opportunities is nothing new in the land of the free and the home of the brave. That doesn’t make it acceptable, and it’s disturbing to see this framed primarily as a ‘children and parents’ issue when it really affects entire communities, because without the youth, communities die.

Image: East Dawn Schoolhouse, Robb North, Flickr