Guest Commentary

When a school closes, the community that's left behind begins to crumble

"If you close our school, you will destroy our community." These arresting words became a repeated refrain at a packed Catalina Magnet High School auditorium for parents and students begging the Tucson Unified School District governing board not to close their school.

The "no more pencils, no more books" playground doggerel of yesteryear stands in stark contrast to the pathetic sight of today's youth imploring adults to spare their school. Strange times.

You have to pity the board members. They surely did not run for office in order to destroy Tucson communities. Nevertheless, they are charged with closing schools to help defray an anticipated $17 million budget deficit for next year thrust upon TUSD by the state Legislature's drastic cuts to education, and the refusal of the electorate to pass Proposition 204.

I suspect it is true that what is left of the communities these schools serve will be destroyed. There was a time in the not-too-distant past when neighbors had many contexts to interact meaningfully with each other. They stood in line waiting for buses, attended the local church, purchased items at a local corner store, or greeted each other on hot evenings as they sat on their porches fanning themselves ... all archaic customs undone by our automotive culture, air conditioning and the Internet. The porches are still there, but they are empty, and the local school is the last institution where neighbors routinely gather to enjoy school sporting events together, interact at PTA meetings, work in the community school garden and cheer their kids on at school functions. Now this, too, is on the auction block.

In our brave new world where test scores reign supreme, the value of "community" is an intangible that does not factor in as a calculation for the board to consider. Not that there aren't measures that derive directly from it. Community violence, crime, suicide, childhood obesity, theft and vandalism are all measurable outcomes from the loss of community—and it's no mystery why some of these are on the rise. For those of us who work at the community schools that still remain (some of them, like Wakefield Middle School, so iconic that they actually lend their name to the entire community), you catch a vision of what once was. The generations stroll by our school garden in the afternoon, asking to pick a few chiles from our bushes for dinner, swapping stories about what the school was like when they attended, and asking whether a favorite teacher still works there.

Drivers beep their horns when passing by—oh, yes, a former student saying hello. If something is out of order, neighbors call the school to let us know.

Our Legislature's vision is that these venerable community schools be replaced by specialized niche charter schools. As good as some of those are academically, they are a dim shadow of what the old community school signified to the surrounding community.

You spot these new charter schools housed in old storefronts sheathed in plywood in converted strip malls, with the children playing on a patch of parking lot fenced off by cyclone wire for a playground. Kids come from all over the city, and head home at the end of the day to insular bubbles connected only by Internet chat. Meanwhile, across the street, the magnificent facilities and grounds of the deceased community school are boarded up or sold to developers. Is this what our civilization has come to?

One has to wonder at the irony of so-called family-values "conservatives" in the Legislature becoming the driving force behind this movement to destroy these wonderful and irreplaceable community institutions. Tragically, once they are gone, they are gone forever.

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