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Enrollment Ebb and Flow Shouldn't Close Community Schools

Shuttering existing institutions a fiscal and cultural mistake

October 11, 2006 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Officials will soon begin considering the fate of Traverse City’s Central Grade School, a historic building that profoundly affects the neighborhood that surrounds it.

TRAVERSE CITY—In the past decade, I’ve watched the neighbor kids trek through orange leaves and snow drifts to the school next door, day after day, year after year, as they’ve grown up, up, up, and increasingly, out into the world. New children arrive annually to walk sleepily down the sidewalk every morning and skip back each afternoon. And this fall, it’s my son who is joining the daisy chain.

Jackson stepped across the masonry threshold of Traverse City’s Central Grade School a few weeks ago and took his seat in a bright kindergarten classroom strewn with blocks and books and short-stuff coat hooks. Joining him were the other neighbor kids born in neighboring houses the same hot summer, five years ago.

However, whether Jackson and his friends will have a chance to finish their elementary years at Central is uncertain. The Traverse City Area Public School District is facing down money troubles. Three elementary schools have been shuttered in recent years, and officials begin deliberating this fall on the fate of others, including Central, a three-story 1920s brick building in our town’s Victorian central neighborhood.

The financial issue facing schools is very real, thanks to ongoing disparities in per-pupil state funding, ebbing student populations in general, and headcount losses to charter schools. It’s one big, real-life story problem that deserves some creative problem solving. The right answer will take into consideration not only the simple math that balances the books, but also the complex physics of life and how we live it.

A Special Kind of Gravity
Neighborhood schools, like most public institutions, exude a special kind of gravity, one that anchors people in place, helps determine patterns of daily life, and influences the ecosystems of cities and neighborhoods. Closing schools or consolidating specialty programs in them redirects our everyday motions, sending children and parents out onto the asphalt in false, overlapping trajectories that waste time, gas, taxes, and spirit. In short, closing nearby older schools and opening faraway new ones facilitates more sprawl, and all that comes with it.

So it is time to teach our children, and ourselves, new-millennium problem-solving skills that not only balance budgets but also figure out how to live in a truly civilized manner. That means respecting our communities, preserving our history, and enabling children to walk to where they’re going, instead of just reading about the benefits of exercise in school. We must stop focusing on short-term solutions for our schools and, instead, adopt long-term ones that accommodate the inevitable ebbs and flows of student populations.

The recent history of our own school district offers an excellent example of what is an increasingly common pattern across the state. Just 10 years ago, Traverse City was madly building new schools in farm fields to accommodate a surge in students, using voter-approved monies that also included millions for renovating Central. In fact, preserving Central was a key component of that mid-1990s millage campaign; it reflected a strong community ethic for maintaining the historic building and the sense of community it engenders. Today, however, our district is shuttering older elementary schools as a way to cope with a natural lull in enrollment.

There has to be a better way. We must figure out exactly what is needed for long-term systemic equilibrium and how best to prevent tearing things down today only to rebuild them tomorrow.

Who Is Serving Whom?
We need long-term elasticity. Instead of closing whole schools, we need to get creative with the space they provide. It is far wiser to close off a floor of Central or lease space to, say, a private daycare provider, than to bulldoze the building. Let the buildings stay, and allow the schools within them to expand and contract to accommodate ebbs and flows in student populations.

And let’s create balance, too. Specialty programs like public Montessori and Talented and Gifted are thriving, attracting children whose parents might otherwise opt for charter or private schools. That is good news for a district dependent on head counts for funding that has been losing students to charter schools. The public Montessori program, for instance, began five years ago with 32 children; this year it has about 385 students. The growth in such programs is prompting the district to consider turning Central into an all-Montessori or all-specialty school.

That sounds good, but the idea has some problems. Yes, it is easier for school officials to administer programs in one location. But it’s not easier for the communities involved—neighborhood children who would have gone to Central would be bused to schools elsewhere, while literally hundreds of parents would drive into Central’s neighborhood to drop off and pick up their Montessori or special education children.

Instead of so sharply separating the use of different buildings and creating so much unnecessary traffic, let’s integrate by taking the classrooms to where the children actually live. Oak Park Elementary—a neighborhood school across town where 72 percent of children walked—offers an excellent example. It was closed for good in June because, the district said, there weren’t enough students there to sustain it. By adding Montessori classrooms there, however, the district could have had the head count they said was needed to keep Oak Park’s doors open. Instead, officials added Montessori classrooms at Central, which is already packed with more than 650 students.

Taking service to the children, rather than making them come to get it, is not only a choice against sprawl, it also sends a message about the role of our public institution: They are here to serve us, the public, not vice versa.

Numbers Are Important
The school district’s upcoming budget deliberations also must include realistic, accurate, and easily accessible numbers. In discussing Central’s possible fates, officials cite the high price of renovating Central compared to post-WWII schools. That is not necessarily accurate. For one thing, there are studies that indicate the cost estimates school boards get for  historic renovations can be seriously skewed.

And there are other things to consider beside the hard cost of the building project itself. For example, Central holds two to three times more students than some of the other buildings that are candidates for renovation. Those larger numbers greatly amplify the money-saving effect of its heart-of-town location, which allows so many students to walk and those who are bused to travel only short distances. Additionally, renovations at Central will likely last longer than at other schools, due to the building’s fortress-like structural soundness.

In other words, when comparing costs, it is important to consider the big picture: What does renovating a historic school really cost, according to companies that specialize in historic renovation? Will a renovation now save us from building new schools in a dozen years? What can renovation save the school district, and people it serves, and the larger community, in terms of busing, driving, infrastructure, and traffic costs?

The Big Picture
How our schools manage the demands that an ever-changing population places on them requires an ability to think in terms of larger systems, rather than just the immediate, right here, right now problem. We are all part of larger systems that day by day become more complex; decisions can affect the whole community, not just parents who would rather not have to suddenly start driving their kids across town to a different school. The effects of closing a school ripple through an entire community, scrambling daily life, for better or worse. That is why the community that lies beyond the immediate school and its parents and teachers must have a role in solving such problems.

Parents can contribute by speaking up to school boards about the preservation of neighborhood schools, by choosing to live near schools, and by rallying state lawmakers to address not only per-student funding discrepancies, but also the rules that school boards must function under when deciding when and where to expand or build. Right now, school boards are very independent from larger community land use concerns, and that is not a good thing.

And parents need to realize that their enrollment choices also deeply affect their entire community. Placing children in private or charter schools affects the entire public system and the larger community.

Neighborhoods play a pivotal role, too. Neighbors must work against gentrification and toward healthy density, including a good dose of affordable housing. Many families with young ones can’t afford the priciest zip codes, and that is what frequently dooms old schools like Central—why keep a school open in a neighborhood that young families with children simply cannot afford to live in?

My own neighborhood has seen property values double and triple in the past decade. Meanwhile, many of my neighbors who are crusading to keep Central Grade School alive and well previously worked at direct cross-purposes to that goal by defeating a granny-flat ordinance. It would have allowed homeowners to rent new, secondary dwellings on their property, such as garage apartments and converted carriage houses, thereby making room for more young families with kids and keeping Central’s enrollment up.

It’s time to think about the whole ecosystem of the neighborhood. Central Grade School is a key component of our daily life. But it is hardly permanent if we do not care for what surrounds it. Central simply cannot continue to exist without children.

In that way, the problem we are facing with Central reminds us that, in order to preserve it or any other neighborhood schools, we must not only honor the past, we must also take responsibility for the future in ways that respect the ABCs of how communities actually work. We must acknowledge that schools are central to the rhythms of our lives and the health of our communities.

Freelance writer Lori Hall Steele lives in Traverse City. This is her first article for the Elm Street Writers Group. Reach her at lori@lorihallsteele.com.

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