One of my frustrations with public education today, at least as I’ve seen it here in DCPS, is that the schoolhouse is typically isolated from the community it was built to serve. Somewhere in the evolution of our public education system, systemic pressures built two silos of learning opportunities–those originating inside schools and those outside of schools. The school became a cordoned-off enterprise, a standalone entity that sends this message each day: “Dear parents: bring me some students, place them in my classrooms, and then I’ll educate them before they return to you in the afternoon!”
This was not always the case, though. In an earlier stage of American history, schools were an integral part of the broader community fabric. We’ve lost that seamless connection.
Yet, we know how important education is to the prosperity of a community. So why can’t the school, once again, become the community hub–the nexus of interactions that take place within the community?
I see so many students each day who are bored to no end by school, exactly because they experience learning that just doesn’t seem real. It is not real because it is disconnected from the communities in which they return to and live in after the bell rings at 3:15pm. If students are studying politics, why does it have to be out of a textbook, instead of from an interview of one of the many political figures who call Washington, D.C. their home? If students are studying business principles, why do they do it using imaginary case studies, when there are plenty of local entrepreneurs who can come in and provide their business insights?
While I don’t mean to devalue the importance of “textbook” learning, I do think that somehow schools need to break out of this “silo” mentality. We need to harness the two, connect them again, like a seamless web.
I’m writing about this today because I was inspired by the student response to a series of events that took place in my school last week. In short, on Wednesday, speakers from the Alliance for Climate Education (“ACE”) gave a captivating presentation on the dangers of climate change; on Thursday, employees from various banks and financial institutions came in and gave first-rate instruction on financial literacy as part of Operation HOPE‘s “Banking on Our Future” program; on Friday, a journalism student from George Washington University came into my journalism class to teach questioning principles and hold a mock press conference.
I am not surprised that all of these events, which brought “the community” (defined abstractly) and our school closer together, were well-received by an engaged and motivated group of students. It just shows how much students can benefit from feeling like they are learning from and interacting with “real” people (and not just robotic teachers who transmit knowledge).
A skeptic might scoff at this idea of integrating school and community. How is it possible to connect schools, especially those that are failing, to the broader community? Wouldn’t that only increase our problems by allowing failing schools to corrupt the broader social fabric?
I don’t think so. A Rethinking Schools article by Gregory Michie, entitled “Another Path is Possible: Two Chicago Principals Keep an Eye on What Matters,” explores the (eccentric) approach that principals at two schools in blighted neighborhoods of Chicago took to build community schools in their neighborhoods. The schools are open late, offer day care, classes for adults, and generally provide the services one would expect from a “community center.” At one school, over 400 people use the building weekly during non-school hours. As Amy Rome, one of these principals, says, “we’re about relationship building, student support, and collaborative problem-solving with the community. We believe the community’s challenges are the school’ s challenges.” Here, there is little distinction between school and community; they are one and the same.
If we put our minds to rebuilding community schools, we’ll be that much closer to rebuilding our communities at large.