My friend, Dr. Mark Naison, wrote a beautiful piece a while ago about his vision for education, which he graciously allowed me to reprint. I loved his idea of schools as community centers. I wanted to talk to about that for a minute:
I’ve worked in schools that began using their personnel and resources to offer community programs and assistance–in effect, becoming the community center of the neighborhoods in which they serve. One fantastic example is Leslie Middle School in Salem, Oregon, a school to which the staff referred as “the hub of the community.” Through their own research and conversations with people in their neighborhoods, they concluded that every school population is a microcosm of the area it serves; therefore, it makes creating programs for the community simple, since staff has a good background on the needs of families in the area and can tailor programs accordingly.
With a rapidly growing Hispanic population in Leslie’s service area, the staff offered both Spanish and English workshops for reading, writing, and speaking. They offered parenting classes, cooking classes, tax assistance, and financial planning help. They had after-school care, tutoring, open computer labs and library services, and several events throughout the year where students and others could participate in making the neighborhood a better place. Everyone loved it and the students had pride in their school, knowing they spent every day in a building that really made a difference, and in which they had many opportunities to make a difference themselves.
Unfortunately, education budget cuts and redistricting of employees have taken their tolls on these wonderful works. The community liaison no longer works there, class sizes are increasing (one teacher complained of students who need to stand in the back of the room), and crushing standardized testing policies are beginning to take hold in Oregon. Needless to say, in order to make room for the new order of things, the really great things are being put on hold, indefinitely.
This ideal is not hard to accomplish, if schools are allowed to do it. Schools should be funded so that they can serve their communities, as well as students. As noted above, public computer labs, libraries, meeting spaces, fitness centers, and other resources fit perfectly in a public school. Community volunteers are never in short supply, and students would appreciate the convenient venue for community service learning. It seems so logical.
In tight-knit and supportive communities, local businesses are generally happy to sponsor these types of things. In communities where money isn’t as freely available, a conversation with the elected leaders is in order. Raising test scores will not fight or end poverty. Providing the nearby schools the resources to act as centers that serve their communities may at least lead to livelier and more engaged kids and parents. College students are more than happy to get involved, as are local business owners who would like to see their neighborhoods begin to revitalize. Turning schools into centers of the community will also give its students the important role of being part of something bigger and necessary.