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What are we going to do about neighborhood schools?

Main Street School

Main Street School

Today someone sent me a link to this article in the Sentinel.

The article is about how there is a discussion in the Soquel school district about what to do about the lopsided enrollment in their schools. Seems almost everyone wants to go to Main Street, only one family wants their kid to transfer into Santa Cruz Gardens, and no one wants to get into Soquel Elementary.

As is the tradition in the Sentinel, comments went all over the map. But I noticed that the comments actually seemed to be about something, which is not always the case. The comments seemed to be about the fact that people care about their schools and their choice of schools.

A few of the people commenting had nothing to do with Soquel schools. There seems to be a faction of people out there, many of them not even in Santa Cruz, who make a blood sport of commenting in the Sentinel.

But the rest of the commenters had interesting things to say. Some of them had kids in Soquel public schools; others had kids in private schools; still others have no kids but care about schools. Everyone had an opinion.

I have my own opinion. I can tell you, from my narrow point of view, why people transfer into Main Street: there is a very active, vibrant parent community there. It has nothing to do with race, except for the fact that white, American-born parents are demographically more likely to have the time, money, and excess energy to put into their kids’ schools.

Santa Cruz Gardens, on the other hand, has a different feel to it: it’s got the feel of an isolated neighborhood school, which is what people in that neighborhood like about it. But it doesn’t surprise me at all that people don’t want to transfer into it.

And Soquel Elementary? It just doesn’t have that warm feeling to it. It’s a regal building, but stuck in the middle of a very trafficked business district, it’s just not appealing.

But the point is, there are very few people who choose a school based on something thought out like “Wow, I see from the demographics that there are 20% Latino kids in this school, but only 13% in that school. I guess I’ll go to that school.”

Hardly. People choose what they’re attracted to, and they can’t always define what they’re attracted to. Sometimes it has something to do with race, I’m sure. But not for any of the many people I know who transfer out of their school district or go to private schools.

It is the case that in order to satisfy people, you have to let them make choices. And it is the case that sometimes a thing is inherently more attractive to more people than another thing. So the answer isn’t what one person suggested, that the Soquel district not allow transfers. And the answer isn’t to try to convince people that Soquel Elementary is the same as Main Street. Because it isn’t.

The answer is that our public schools need to keep up with our culture. A generation ago, it would have been strange for a parent to transfer their kid from one neighborhood school to another one. Parents didn’t feel like they had a choice. But once that rumor got around, that we have choices, we started to make them. And once Pandora’s box has been opened, good luck trying to force the lid down on all the heads of the people climbing out!

Neighborhood public schools are being run for a generation of grandparents. They’re largely ignoring the parents of today, who are more and more voting with their feet. When our son was entering school, I called up the new principal of our local neighborhood school, and he effectively talked me out of sending my son there. I was shocked. But now I think he did both of us a favor: we were never going to be happy there, and we would have taken precious time and resources from the kids whose needs were being served.

What if all neighborhood schools started to decide what they were really about? What if they could say, Wow, it seems like lots of people here are interested in the arts, so we’re going to emphasize arts here. Or Hey, none of the schools around here really cater to kids who want a strong science program, so that’s what we’re going to do?

What if kids could attend schools part-time and homeschool part-time (as my daughter’s homeschool program works), or if kids could attend one school for their academics and another for their enrichment (as a friend’s homeschooled kids do one day a week)?

What if a principal told prospective teachers: We really like problem kids here. We encourage parents to send them here because our teachers are people who love the challenge of helping awaken the engaged learner in a kid that no one else has been able to reach. What kind of teachers would that principal get, and when would parents start to sit up and notice that kids were doing well at that school?

It’s a pipe dream, if only because there’s no way that such a thing could be achieved within a huge bureaucracy. The thing is, districts like Soquel have the ability to do that. They can be small and agile. Another small district in our county, Live Oak, has almost as many students going to non-traditional programs as it does traditional neighborhood schools. And parents flock there from other districts. They aren’t seeking to get away from parents of a different skin color; they’re seeking a school that knows what it’s doing.

Why doesn’t Soquel have a single charter school? A single special program? Why aren’t they taking advantage of what they’ve got instead of trying to force parents to swallow what they don’t want?

No school can do it all. No school appeals to all parents and works for all kids. This is what we know. Now what are we going to do about it?

Posted in Culture, Education.

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. Our neighborhood schools: what makes them attractive? – Avant Parenting linked to this post on December 4, 2009

    […] I posted a critique of what’s going on in the Soquel School District, as described in the Santa Cruz Sentinel. I suggested that perhaps people quoted in the Sentinel […]

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