Is a School Just a “Place”?

Aug 29, 2011 by

Anne O’Brien, Learning First Alliance

Last week WAMU ran a segment on charter school closings in Washington, DC, that bothered me. Not because poorly performing (in terms of academics or finances) charter schools were closed (I firmly believe that low-performing charter schools should close), and not only because of the process by which the schools were closed (too late in the year for students to get into either the DCPS lottery for out of neighborhood schools or the lotteries of many other charters, and with little communication with the families of students attending the schools), but because of some of the language used to talk about the situation, specifically the word “placement.”

>As the result of three charter schools closing and two eliminating their high school programs, nearly 750 students needed to find new schools. Several have had a great deal of difficulty in doing so. According to reporter Kavitha Cardoza, about 50% of students were without “placements” just ten days before the start of the school year. 64 of the 128 students impacted by the closure of the secondary school program at one charter school had found “placements.” 128 of 229 students from another closed charter had been placed, and there was a 53% “placement” rate for students from a third.

The word “placement” is so cold in this context. Schools are not just “places” where children go. They are one of the most central aspects of a child’s life, and often a key part of her identity. Going to a new school is going to a new “place” – but those places are not all equal in the eyes of a student.

A child’s school is one of the most central aspects of a parent’s life, too (one caregiver called her grandson’s move to his new school “a leap of faith,” having no prior relationship with it). But this story certainly did not give me that impression about schools in DC. The story seemed to portray schools as widgets, not the centers of community that they truly are (or at least, that they should be).

I got a completely different sense in reading (that same day) about the opening of schools in Joplin, MO on August 17, after one of the deadliest tornados in US history hit the town in late May. There was devastation throughout the community. Six school buildings were destroyed, with many others badly damaged. A promise two days after the storm by the superintendent to reopen schools on time was met with doubt. But it was a promise fulfilled.

As Ashley Micklethwaite, president of the local Board of Education, was quoted in the New York Times coverage of the reopening: “It became a rallying point for the community.” The opening of schools “led residents of a nearby retirement home to line the street cheering for the arriving teenagers.”

The Associated Press points out that schools played “an outsized role in Joplin’s recovery, for reasons symbolic as much as practical.” One example: The hours and locations of summer schools were expanded, allowing “the community’s children” a reassuring routine and their parents time to deal with the adult issues that follow a tragedy like this – insurance agents, contractors and social services.

To me, that is what school should be. That should be the relationship we strive to have all students, parents and community members experience with their school. It is not just a “placement.”

About the Author

Anne O’Brien joined the Learning First Alliance in September 2007. Prior to joining the Alliance, she worked for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southeast Louisiana, helping rebuild the agency after Hurricane Katrina. There she managed first the school-based mentoring program and then enrollment and matching for the agency. She has also consulted on the development of school-run mentoring programs.

Anne brings a practitioner’s lens to her work, having taught high school biology, physical science, and remedial math at East St. John High School in Reserve, LA, and serving as a Teach For America corps member in the Greater New Orleans region. She holds a Bachelor’s degree from Grinnell College and a Master’s degree from George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development. She is also an alumna of the Education Policy Fellowship Program at the Institute for Educational Leadership

About The Learning First Alliance

The Learning First Alliance is a partnership of 16 leading education associations with more than 10 million members dedicated to improving student learning in America’s public schools. Alliance members include: the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, American Association of School Administrators, American Association of School Personnel Administrators, American Federation of Teachers, American School Counselor Association, International Society for Technology in Education, Learning Forward (formerly National Staff Development Council), National Association of Elementary School Principals, National Association of Secondary School Principals, National Association of State Boards of Education, National Education Association, National Middle School Association, National School Public Relations Association, National PTA, National School Boards Association and Phi Delta Kappa International. The Alliance maintains www.learningfirst.org, a website that features what’s working in public schools and districts across the country.

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