No decision has been made yet, but a couple of weeks ago now a letter went out from the North Clackamas School District leadership that the closure and consolidation of my son’s elementary school, my elementary school 40 some years ago, is on the table for next fall. Half of the kids at his school would go to other schools down the road, but the other half, the students enrolled in the Spanish Bi-lingual Immersion Program, would bus 10 minutes further down the road to the only other school in the district offering a similar program. Enrollment is down, they say, and my son’s school, in terms of its student population, is running far short of its capacity. It’s expensive, apparently, to keep the building itself, the physical plant, running at less than its full capacity. We are to understand that this makes fiscal and logistical sense, that it’s the least disruptive and most efficient choice, that the program won’t expire or be compromised. At first I thought, well, IF they can keep the same kids together, preserve teacher jobs and avoid class sizes from getting any larger than they already are, about 32 first graders, what harm could there be in a move like this?
I’m afraid on further reflection I see all kinds of harm.
The program in which my son is enrolled is what we call a magnet; district kids from outside the neighborhood and some kids out of the district can apply for acceptance into the Spanish Immersion Bi-lingual Program–but my wife and I deliberately moved into the attendance area of the school even before our boy was officially offered a spot–because we wanted to live close to the school. There was something important, we thought, not just about the convenience of living close by, and not just about the quality of the program, but about the concept of the neighborhood school itself.
Beyond a purely sentimental attachment, neighborhood schools are meaningful places; they can bring communities together, create cohesion and unity, foster a sense of home as being not just the place where children live, but where children learn and engage with their environment. Neighborhood schools have a history, a tradition, and a cultural identity all their own–all tending toward giving young people a sense of stability and belonging. Especially in a suburban environment like ours where homes are spread out and the business district is full of big box stores and strip malls, a neighborhood school becomes the very center and heart of the community–no other such place exists close by. It just seems to me like folly to close a successful and effective elementary school, separating kids who have begun this educational journey together into three different far flung buildings, in the name of efficiency.
Our superintendent and other folks in the district leadership held a community meeting at the school and the board of directors held another one in a different location the next evening. We are told that the closure of the school is not a foregone conclusion. But a half a million dollars must be saved. Actually, six million dollars must be saved–and the closure of our elementary school is 1/12th of the potential solution to the problem. I can’t help but think there must be other ways to find the money, and I worry that a move toward efficiency now may have some far reaching consequences for our community down the road, that we may never get our school back, and that my son and his classmates will miss out on something that seems to me almost the equivalent of a good program taught by effective teachers: a sense of ownership and belonging and continuity that only a neighborhood school can provide.