Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Neighborhood Public School: Worth Fighting For


Is a local neighborhood public school a "big deal"? Do people really pay much attention to that elementary school down the road? Try to close one and you'll see.

Yes, it's an incredibly emotional event, but why? Is there reason behind the emotion? Or is it just irrational fears and superstitions?

We'll explore that today.

The "9/11" of Los Altos/Hills...

About nine years ago, the normally quiet towns of Los Altos and Los Altos Hills, California were rocked by an event which divides the community to this day. The aftermath of this event included:
  • Normally quiet and staid residents showing deep anger at the turn of events, which included nasty personal attacks on public officials and heated, confrontational debates between residents. 
  • Normally non-participatory citizens suddenly taking a keen interest in local politics including the support of local politicians through campaign donations, pointed letters to local papers, and so on. 
  • Some of our richest citizens spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a local "cause" in order to "right a wrong". 
  • Many of our citizens making themselves "experts" (if not of the armchair variety) in arcane areas of the law and spending enormous amounts of their spare time to understand such minutia as soil analysis. 
  • Never-ending lawsuits, costing both sides hundreds of thousands of dollars, have become the norm for the community. 
  • Our community, immensely fortunate in so many ways and almost universally harmonious, becoming deeply divided into two "factions". 
What sort of event could do this to a normally quiet community?

They closed a local neighborhood public school.

Yes, the closure was temporary as it turned out, but that didn't matter: the community around the school was disrupted and partially lost, which is why there was enormous damage and enormous reaction to it.

Why All The Fuss?

"The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves." 
John Adams, U.S. President, 1785 [32]
Most people today understand the value of public education in the USA. The "social contract" we have with public education is that, if our society is generally educated, we will all be better off.

The Founding Fathers even understood that this went beyond mere prosperity and saw education as a key pillar of our Republic: our Constitution isn't going to survive if a large part of the population cannot read it.

However valuable people find the public school system, there is a different value felt by your neighborhood public school.

In the example here in Los Altos Hills, the "school system" and its value arguably didn't change much when a school was closed (on paper at least): kids were moved to other, arguably outstanding, nearby public schools. But parents knew, at least intuitively, that something enormously valuable was lost, and were outraged.

Personal and Specific--and Extremely Valuable

It is said that a local neighborhood public school is the heart of every community: insofar as people value their community, they value their community's school. More specifically however, these values include:

  • A safe and effective place for their children to learn (to get the most obvious one out of the way).
  • It's where their children's social life is generally based. Children who are fortunate enough to stay in one place while growing up (which is to say, most children) build up long-lasting relationships among their school mates, and these relationships bleed into subsequent levels of schooling when moving up to Junior and High School.
  • It's often the source of a great deal of the parent's social life, wherein your children's friend's parents become your friends, and so on. This social circle pays off dividends for education as well.
  • It's the source of a tightly woven community in which parents know other parent's children, kids know other kid's parents, and they all know each other's teachers and school staff.
  • It's a source of community sharing and volunteering where parents can leverage each other's time and money to make their school better.
  • The familiarity bred from constant interaction and resulting relationships promotes safety and security. Parents will look out for other's children since they know them well. The presence of multitudes of authority figures (i.e. parents who know other parent's children by name) creates an environment where kids are much more likely to be supervised, thus creating a safer environment.
  • Whereas a teacher's job is performed in relative isolation, parents play the role of "manager" (or "peer") and in this context the greater the degree of familiarity, the greater the effectiveness of this vital feedback and control mechanism. Parents and teachers who know each other well (from siblings, from other parents, etc,) will work together more effectively--which translates to more effective teachers.
  • Insofar as teachers and staff are part of the school ecosystem, they too gain all of the advantages of the social fabric of knowledge.

To put it negatively, taking all of this away can be absolutely devastating to both parents, children, teachers and staff (and the damage it does to children can again be devastating to parents).

Closing a local neighborhood public school specifically means:

  • Parents losing any sort of standing they might have earned in the school's decision-making structure (either formal or informal, and within overall school operations [viz. PTA] or within self-selected areas of focus [i.e. being known as "a reliable organizer"]).
  • Children's social lives--the complex relationships they have with their schoolmates--being torn apart, ended. Moving schools is very similar to moving out to another community, which has been shown to have bad outcomes (i.e. this is something you want to minimize).
  • Parents social lives similarly being cleared and reset.
  • Volunteer parents being demoralized and given a strong disincentive to volunteer in any way that involves building a strong school community (it's worth noting here that they threat of a school closure also can cause this to some extent as well). Why work for something which will just be taken away?
  • Parent and student relationships with teachers and school staff (and vice-versa) being similarly damaged or annihilated.

The real value of a local neighborhood public school is not the buildings or the programs or even the location per se: it's the set of complex relationships that are built up over a number of years and are impossible to reproduce.

Closing a local neighborhood public school, in a single stroke, wipes out incredible value to hundreds of children and parents. That's why closing (or threatening to close) a neighborhood public school is so incredibly emotional: it's emotion rooted in reason and facts.
Closing a school feels bad because it is bad--for children, parents, teachers, staff and the community in general.

Natural and Man-Made Disasters

At this point we should take a moment for a philosophical aside, and talk about "natural versus man-made" disasters. In other words, "what makes people sad, and what makes people angry when something goes wrong?".

A tornado killing a family makes people sad. Robbers raiding a home and killing that same family would make people angry.

The difference in emotion is between the "natural" and the "mad-made".

It's also worth noting here that some factors may be "actually" man-made but are otherwise out of our control and have the same effect as the cause being "natural". Somebody robbing your car will make you angry whereas your car being taken away because you could no longer make the payments will make you sad (insofar as you blame events out of your control, etc.).

There are many reasons why a local neighborhood public school might be closed. Some of those things are "natural" in this context, and some are "man-made".

A school closing down because there is no money left to keep it open, or it needs to be closed for repairs, etc. could be considered "natural" if there was nobody in particular to blame for the unfortunate event. An external entity causing an otherwise thriving, well-funded school to be closed would obviously be considered man-made and would result in anger rather than sadness.

The Rift Here and It's Origins

In the case of the disaster here in Los Altos Hills nearly a decade ago, many saw this as a natural disaster and were sad. Many, however, saw this as man-made and were very, very angry (to the point that they were compelled to act, to write, to vote, and to spend).

At issue was the reasoning behind the closing of the school.

Whereas some saw it as a confluence of unfortunate and unavoidable factors (such as the aging campus that was in need of repairs, unexpected budget overruns, etc.), others saw it as a willful attack on their community caused by "man-made" factors such as carelessness and incompetence.

This division--this difference in perspective between the Natural and the Man-Made--is the psychological basis of the original rift in our community.

That the emotions are still felt after nine years--emotions which are still often cited by its victims--shows just how painful this issue can be.

As the years have worn on, however, the original argument has long since fallen by the wayside as all of the original practical details have changed dramatically.

The school which was closed has since re-opened (as Gardner Bullis School) and has a tight-knit community of around 300 children, their parents and the school's teachers and staff. This school is now a thriving neighborhood public school just like the original one which was closed, and has a very, very strong network of children, parents, teachers and staff--just like the rest of the schools in our District.

Another event occurring in the aftermath of the original school closing was the formation of Bullis Charter School with many of the original closed school's children and parents. With the creation of this school, the lost value from the closing was (partially at least) restored--parents and children were moved over and the school became successful as it was operated by a very emotional, dedicated (and rich, it must be said) group of parents.

The End?

This story would have a "happy ending", but somewhere along the way the thesis in today's post (that a local neighborhood public school community is incredibly valuable and it should be held together at all costs) has been lost by a certain group of parents and school administrators: the leadership of Bullis Charter School.

In what is an almost unbelievable irony, Bullis Charter School seeks to close a neighborhood school* in order to be given, for free, what it feels is a more convenient campus facility than has currently been given (*see the quote in the story from the BCS Chairman indicating the schools which they would find "acceptable" to close).

Needless to say, with at least four local neighborhood public schools in our community now being threatened with shutdown, parents are up in arms--and even scared--and almost universally angry at the entity threatening their schools (Bullis Charter School).

How has this anger been manifested? In the last four months alone there have been several blogs (including this one) either newly created or focused to be mainly on Bullis Charter School created by parents and community members. There is even a complete Bullis Charter School critical review site as well.

Besides the web materials and writing, there have been numerous letters to the editors, stories in the local papers, and thousands of exchanges in online forums involving hundreds of community members making their voices heard on this intensely emotional issue.

In an unprecedented show of community solidarity, the PTAs of all of the schools in the Los Altos School District along with the District's charitable foundation have coordinated their message to make it clear that shutting down a local neighborhood public school should never be an option.

(Note that exact origin of this "war" in our community was the subject of another posting on Bullis Charter School in this blog. The thesis of that post is that in order for the "war" to end, the leadership at Bullis Charter School will need to dramatically change it's thinking and its operational strategy).

One of the first requirements for real change in our local school community will be for the current leadership of Bullis Charter School to remember how they got here in the in the first place, and to remember from their own direct experience that the local neighborhood public school is worth fighting for--and that diligent, intelligent, energetic and (it must be said for this area) well-financed people will do whatever it takes.

Community members in Los Altos and Hills are trying to save their local neighborhood public schools because know what is at stake--and they are fighting with all their heart.

But their heart is in the right place: from a purely reasonable, rational standpoint, the local neighborhood public school is an incredibly valuable thing, and fighting for it--even with a certain degree of emotional abandon--is a good thing.

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