Neighborhood Schools

Earlier this week I posted something on Facebook regarding the start of school which prompted a conservative friend to comment on the benefits of “neighborhood schools,” a term I haven’t heard in a few years. It might surprise readers to learn that I am a proponent of neighborhood schools only my idea of a neighborhood school differs greatly from that of most who use the term.

Transporting kids to schools outside their neighborhoods was first used as a tool to integrate schools. Overwhelming evidence that wealthier neighborhoods had wealthier schools while poorer neighborhoods had poorer schools exposed the lie of “separate but equal” and prompted courts to take action where local officials would not. In addition to the equities involved, all students who attend diverse schools derive great benefits from that experience. For that reason alone I would support making integration a bigger factor in school assignment than place of residence if everything else was equal.

But all things aren’t equal. Any child who arrives in a classroom in a Lowell public school who is well fed, well rested, well clothed, well cared for and comes from a safe and supportive home – regardless of how traditional or non-traditional the occupants of that home may be – will receive an excellent education. For too many kids, some or all of those prerequisites of learning are simply not available. If you’re now tempted to say “It’s the parents’ responsibility”, please don’t, because that would just show that you’re unwilling to have a serious discussion on this topic. Of course it’s the parents’ responsibility but a depressingly large number of parents are either unable or unwilling to provide those prerequisites to learning.

The only way to break out of this pattern is for society to provide these things to the kids who need them. We’ve been trying to do that for nearly a half century. There have been some successes but not enough to keep pace with the scale of the needs. While more money would certainly help, it’s not an option and, more importantly, I’m not sure that it’s necessary. What is necessary is a more efficient way of delivering existing resources and services to those who need them. And that’s where the neighborhood school comes in.

Here are some of the characteristics of my neighborhood school: It would have free day care both before and after the formal school day started and ended. In most families both parents (or the one parent in the household) work and juggling a work schedule and school drop-off and pick-up times create an incredible amount of stress on both kids and their parents. Once the child gets to school, a nutritious breakfast and snacks would be available at a reasonable price to those who could afford it and free to those who could not. For many children, the food they eat at school is their only decent nutrition of the day. After school care would not be a simple babysitting service but would be a mixture of homework and physical activity. Almost every kid would benefit from more exercise and having access to a homework center staffed by college students pursuing education degrees as part of formal partnerships with UML and MCC would be a huge benefit to the students. The homework centers and gyms would also be available in the evening. If it’s a neighborhood school then some kids, at least, should be able to return easily after dinner.

Besides the basics of food, day care and homework help, each school would have medical professionals from community health centers assigned on a regular basis. Why should a child miss an entire day of school for a routine medical appointment when the medical professional might be able to be at the child’s school in the first place? And (non school department) social workers and counselors would play a critical role and should also be consistently present. If a child is in crisis, interventions could happen immediately.

By keeping the schools open all the time, they could also serve as neighborhood centers. Instead of having police substations in rented space, put them in schools. What better way of building relations between the police and the community? Neighborhood groups could hold their meetings at the schools, young adults could use the gyms later at night, community cookouts and gatherings could be organized on the school grounds. The possibilities are endless. And best of all, since this approach just reallocates existing resources, it would not require significant new spending.

So why hasn’t stuff like this happened already? Any initiatives like those I describe above that have been tried in the past have been stifled by the bureaucracy and its rules. I refer to “existing resources” but those resources all are dispersed among independent agencies – local government, local schools, state government, federal government, and non-profits that are funded by government – with no one in overall command, no one responsible for the big picture. Each of those agencies operates within its own universe and the concept of sharing resources is usually seen as a threat rather than an opportunity. We all know it’s easier to kill an idea than it is to implement it.

That’s my view of a neighborhood school As much as I value the benefits of integration, I think the benefits of the school-centric/neighborhood centric model of delivering services that I describe above outweigh all other considerations.

3 Responses to Neighborhood Schools

  1. C R Krieger says:

    I agree with Dick on this post. The only thing I would add is the need for a focus on reading in the free spaces. Yes, physical exercise and homework are important. But, so is cultivating the habit of reading, including encouraging children to take the additional reading materials—books and magazines home with them.

    The only other thing I would consider is breaking down the neighborhood school into “penny packets” to allow teachers to get to know the parents even better.  And to work with them.  But, that might be a bridge too far.

    I does seem to me that the current paradigm has pretty much exhausted itself.

    Regards  —  Cliff

  2. Alex Ruthmann says:

    Great post. There are some programs up and running in other cities that are similar to what you describe here. We have a couple of our music education graduates working for the Needham Extended Day Program which provides before and afterschool care and activities for students at four neighborhood schools in Needham. The program is a parent-run, not-for-profit organization that has been in existence since 1983. You can read more about it here:

  3. PaulM says:

    I’ve mentioned this before, but a plan for a pilot experimental “school” called the Center for Human Development was a central piece of a larger urban redevelopment vision for Lowell, including the “urban cultural park,” that was put forward by the Human Services Corporation in the 1970s, under the leadership of Pat Mogan, Peter Stamas, and others. The plan for the Center for Human Development is in the HSC archives at the UMass Lowell Center for Lowell History. The location was supposed to be the old Giant Store at 305 Dutton Street (corner of Dutton and Broadway). There was even a architect’s model of the redesigned building. In the end, the project didn’t come together. What Dick describes is pretty much how the Center for Human Development was supposed to operate—a place that would serve all the needs of children enrolled there.