Photo by Kelly Brainard.
I live in a small town, working for a small town school district that encompasses several tiny municipalities. I raised my children here, and they attended an elementary school that was probably exactly what some people think of when they think of a “community school.”
Utica Elementary School was one of the two important centers in a village of a couple hundred people; the other is the Utica Volunteer Fire Department. Every meeting, gathering, social event occurred in one of those two buildings.
I don’t want to over-idealize the place. Like any small backwoods town, Utica has some of the issues that come with lack of resources and presence of rural poverty. But the school never lacked for parental and community support. Every room had a full complement of volunteers. Once a year the school staged a talent show, along with an art show and an ice cream social. Everybody was there. Not every parent, or every relative. Everybody. The teaching staff included teachers who lived in the community, and who grew up in the community. When a young teacher died unexpectedly, the school essentially shut down for the day of her funeral.
Utica was rooted in the community. And in my school district, it was not unusual.
Other elementary schools were centered in other small nearby villages. Three elementary schools were located within city limits. Many students traveled to school by foot; this was a town in which people were well-known for being school crossing guards. Those community-based elementary schools remain part of our students’ identities. In the high school yearbook, you’ll find a page of pictures of seniors grouped by their elementary schools (including the Catholic elementary school that feeds into our high school).
We are not unique among small Pennsylvania districts. Part of that comes from our history. Once, each Pennsylvania township was responsible for its local K-12 schools. In the 1960s, the state exerted some pressure for those districts to combine. Each district could choose to join any district they touched, resulting in a hodge-podge of oddly-shaped districts, each one built on a collection of individual tiny schools. The change was not without trauma; I’ve read many letters from parents who were worried about sending their children off to that Big City School. But many communities held onto their elementary schools, complete with local traditions, local family connections, and local culture.
As you might have gathered from my use of past tense, things are changing.
Shifting demographics is part of the reason. In eastern Pennsylvania, the rural population is growing, but in my neck of the woods, it is shrinking. Over the past twenty years, school boards have repeatedly raised the question of closing our local Tinyville Elementary. But locally elected schoolboards hear about issues from the people they run into at church, at the grocery store, at the ball field. The taxpayers have said repeatedly, “Even if it’s cheaper to close Tinyville, it’s part of what makes us special as a community, and we want to keep it open.
Until just a few years ago.
The first big pinch was charter school payments. In Pennsylvania, rural areas that might not be a great market for charter schools are still ripe for cyber-charters, and Pennsylvania’s funding plan for charters is generous (regardless of what it actually costs the charter). As a local superintendent said on retirement about a decade ago, “If you want to get rich in Pennsylvania, go start a charter.”
In just one year, my little district handed over about $800,000 to charter operators. That was to pay for about seventy students. Did our expenses decrease by $800,000 because seventy students had moved on? Of course not.
Shortly after, we closed two community elementary schools. The board was hoping it would save about $800,000. Way more that seventy students now travel outside of their own neighborhood to go to school.
There was more to come. Pennsylvania has a pension mess and local districts are now looking at huge pension payments to straighten it out, an amount equal to about 30% of their payroll costs.
Reform brings structural issues as well. Pennsylvania rates school buildings on test scores, and some superintendents have figured out that if they can get their score-pretty-well sixth graders under the same roof as their stinky-scoring eight graders, they can help their ratings. Call it re-organizing to the test.
It is becoming too expensive to keep community-based schools open. Utica Elementary is closed, taking a chunk of the community’s heart with it. Its students join a long parade of students who used to walk to school and now take a lengthy daily bus ride. Parents who could once stop over to the school at a moment’s notice for anything from a skinned knee to a forgotten lunch now face a long travel time. It remains to be seen how much of a tax hit the district will take; homes in Utica will now be worth less since there’s no school there.
I don’t mean to suggest that this is a major crisis of epic proportions. Far worse things are happening to the education system in the United States. And there’s no question that while a community school reflects and preserves the strengths of its community, it also reflects the problems and weaknesses as well. But I also know, and have seen with my own eyes, that a community is more of a community when it has a school, a place where all members of that community come together to care for and nurture one of their most precious resources—their children. In a democratic society, that has to count for something.
Peter Greene has been a classroom secondary English teacher for over thirty-five years. He lives and works in a small town in Northwest Pennsylvania, blogs at Curmudgucation, and is Midwest Regional Progressive Education Fellow.