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April 03, 2006

Soul of the neighborhood community

A  friend concerned with school closures planned in Portland, penned an email to a few ;-) of his closest friends.  I helped edit down to this, then again down another 400 words to the 500 words published in the Oregonian as Finding our soul in neighborhood schools.  One of the reasons I found it interesting is that find it interesting is as a progressive counterpoint to the conservative “cut taxes, be more efficient” mantra (that has no defined stopping point) -- and the importance of community and where we find it (which is not only where we worship).

Finding community soul in an elementary school
            Prashant Dubey

My friends have wondered why a fellow like me, who is usually pretty good about maintaining balance, is so worked up about the Portland Public Schools closure plans.

Let me explain.

I was born in the inner city of Cleveland, Ohio and then moved to Bombay, India, then to St. Louis, Missouri, then back to Bombay, then to Chicago, and finally to here to Portland.

When I arrived in Portland, I was absolutely bewildered by the level of “contentment” amidst Portlanders. I was enthralled by the feeling of community I experienced, despite the fact that I was a newcomer.  I couldn’t really put my finger on it.  Since then, my wife and I have bought a home together in the Grant Park neighborhood -- 2 blocks from Hollyrood elementary school.  We are now blessed with school-age children.

I have never felt so “at home,” so much a part of a community. And I had never realized how much my local elementary school contributes to this.

I walk my son to school through the park. As we meander through the trees on the gravel path, I see neighbors concluding their morning dog walk and we wave to each other. I see other parents with their kids on scooters approaching the school. I enter the school and see the kids lined up, eager to dash to their classrooms, competing for whom will enter their class first. I wonder about the last time I ran to be the first one at school. I see parents who are professional colleagues. I see parents who are next door neighbors. I see parents who I ran into at the local Mexican restaurant over the weekend. I see parents who join me at the edge of the baseball field during Friday practices. I see parents who worked on the school garden on the south side of the school. I see parents who organized the Halloween extravaganza. I see parents who volunteer in my son’s classroom during writers workshop. I see parents who help with art projects. I see parents who indefatigably organized the school auction.

I realize I know every face in the school involved with our 216 students. I walk out of the school, having bid farewell to my son for the day and exchange glances and smiles with parents – we have dropped off our children in a safe place. We can now go earn a living.

As I walk home, I see neighbors whose children have grown up and have kids of their own. They smile as they reminisce about the memories created at the school. I pass by the pediatric dentists office and recognize it as a sponsor of our recent school auction.  I feel a sense of pride that my neighborhood school is not just an exceptional achievement school, but is full to the brim and is efficient to operate. It feels good. Really good.

A school building is a public asset. It is a community gathering place. It is the nucleus of the local business community. It is the soul of a neighborhood. I never knew this. I never imagined that I would care so much about a building. Public spaces, especially houses of learning, have a way of creating community and connections unlike any other mechanism. These spaces inspire the community to involve themselves in the betterment of the school. Play structures are installed. Playgrounds are cleaned up. School gardens are weeded and vegetables are planted. On weekends, children play on the play structure of their school and feel a sense of belonging themselves. Children are tangible manifestations of hope.

Widespread school closures are planned -- and the creation of larger schools -- purportedly as a means of achieving “better educational outcomes” despite the limited body of evidence to support this and despite the outcry by those with the greatest stake in the educational outcome: the childrens parents.

There is no substantive acknowledgement of the contribution of a (public) school building to the soul of a community. Closing performing neighborhood schools that are community anchors will irreversibly change the landscape of our great city. Once a public asset is relinquished, it is next to impossible to re-claim it. The walks to and from school will be more anonymous. The march to the classrooms will be increasingly mechanical. The school garden will rapidly disappear. The rush to drop off and abscond to the day gig will become routine. The meandering in the hallways will be replaced with elbowing for position in the parking lot. Families will be disillusioned. The urban public school fabric will wear thin. The net loss of soul will be measurable but largely unaccounted for.

I have waited for 40 years to feel like I belong. I believe very, very strongly that closing schools in the name of a uniform curriculum and (alleged) efficiency fundamentally ignores a true value of a school building -- to be a tangible manifestation of the soul of a community.

While I have been discouraged by the fatigue of the body politic in Portland, for me this is about the soul.  The collective souls of communities are the primary means of enhancing the livability of a city. And it is of great and deep concern to me that value of our civic soul is not being acknowledged.  Our individual souls are the means of guiding our beliefs.  I will measure my success by my journey as much as my destination. I will show my children that even if the odds seem stacked against you, your belief system should always be your guide.

We need to keep our performing neighborhood schools, the soul of our community.

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