Just a thought coming out of Thursday night’s cluster meeting: We don’t own our schools.

Since some time during the last School Board Election Cycle, I’ve been worried about the widespread and sometimes uncritical use of the term “neighborhood schools,” because it has so many meanings, and some of them lead back to the phrase’s origins and uses as a term of art in anti-integration politics. That’s a whole post in itself that I won’t get into here. But I will say this: local activist Sara Barron, who I’ve both agreed and disagreed with on various points, including the ICCSD Diversity Policy, and who uses the term, said something really valuable about those differences in meaning yesterday.

“I see strong benefits to having schools located in neighborhoods, and continuing our investment in these schools as our community grows. I am less convinced by the concept of a “neighborhood” as defined by a school. Get half a mile away from a school in any direction and this becomes, to me, an arbitrary distinction. I would say after the South elementary is built, I will have three elementary schools in my neighborhood: South, Twain, and Wood.”

For me, living I think just a little farther North than Sara, my neighborhood schools are Wood, Twain, and Longfellow. This is inexact, as is anything surrounding the term “neighborhood,” but I think its a useful and inclusive way to think about things. Because if you decide that a neighborhood and a single’ school’s attendance zone are always and essentially co-terminus, then any change to the attendance zone is necessarily understood as a disruption of the neighborhood. And that point you’ve just handed over your school’s demographics to the gentle hands of the real estate market. And we all know, or should know, what kind of work those hands have done for the causes of integration, fairness, and inclusion.

Based on my experience Thursday night, some people disagree with the notion that Wood, Twain, and Longfellow are my neighborhood schools, because one of those schools is their neighborhood school, in the singular sense. They fear (wrongly I believe) that a change to its border will destroy their neighborhood, and interfere with their plans to improve the neighborhood via the UniverCity program.

I believe those fears are misplaced, and that they’re unfortunate, since they play on and amplify old fears about one of my neighborhood schools. And what I want to suggest to the people laying out those fears and concerns on flyers and in public forums is this:

This is a public school system. We don’t own our schools. We are stewards, and we pass them on to the next set of parents and children. And if we’re good stewards, we pass them on better than they were when we came to them. And, I believe that stewardship needs to be done with the understanding that they all do better as a deeply connected and balanced set of points on a larger network, not as little enclaves with guarded and tightly patrolled borders.  Yes, we should use our schools and what they offer to improve our immediate neighborhoods. But not at the expense of other schools and other neighborhoods and the network of schools, and the community that network sits in and helps create. Because your school, just like my school, is in someone else’s neighborhood too.

*Edit 4/26/14 for clarity, tone, links.
*Edit 4/27/14 with more links, and more specific details.


Author: Eric D. Johnson

I do American Studies (PhD University of Iowa 2012) scholarship, including but not limited to: Race and Genre in American Popular Music, Critical Southern Studies, and African American Memory and History in the Ozarks. I also write about educational policy and politics, focusing on integration and desegregation and the intersection of school and housing policies.

3 thoughts on “Stewards”

  1. I couldn’t really find a way to fit this in, but I did want to note a few things about the UniverCity program and the territory that people are arguing about. I want to talk more about this in a future post, so for now, just a list of quick thoughts:

    1. I think its a great program. I totally support it. I’d also very much like to see the City make similar investments outside of and away from the downtown. South of town for instance has great potential.

    2. There is nothing that I can find in the city’s public information about the UniverCity program that says anything about school walkability or access to schools, or about schools at all. And I don’t think that the school district can or should be beholden to the promises that real estate agents might make.

    3. I believe that the notion that people will sell their houses rather than travel from the blocks West of Summit and East of Governor to Twain is mistaken. I think this is especially true given the facilities updates coming to Twain earlier than any other Eastside school. I’d also note that families are currently asked to travel to Twain the same distance or farther, and cross Highway 6, and that none of the walkability advocates at Thursday’s meeting seemed concerned about that. As someone said at my table “Those people are used to going that far.”

  2. And 4. I understand that people are upset and have lives with lots of working parts, and expectations about how things are going to go, and that sending your children to a new school, one that’s farther away even a little, is a hassle. These are real families, not just the number “48” on the Cluster 2 draft map. I get that. And, I get that people who live in that area do walk, and it will be a harder walk, or a drive if that map is adopted. Its not at all that I don’t understand this. I just weigh it against a move that I think is healthier in the long run for that entire Southern part of the cluster, up to and including those streets West of Summit and East of Governor.

    And 5. I’d urge those people who are worried about this to get a little more familiar with the process. At Thursday’s meeting, one table demanded that the district release confidential FRL data so that they could verify the results of the change of borders, and most did not know that the District is building a new elementary to the East, set to open in 2019, which would be a highly walkable school for most of Windsor Ridge.

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