Old School

I always find the first day of school to be bittersweet. I am happy for the kids to get back to their friends, for everyone to get back into a routine and excited to see their accomplishments. On the other hand, it is a reminder of how fast they are growing up, we will have less time hanging out and the long carefree summer days are gone for another year. Monday morning we made our final preparations for the beginning of another school year. Backpacks. Check. Lunches packed. Check. School supplies. Check. Nerves and excitement. Check. And out the door we go. Our oldest daughter heads one mile south to start her first year of high school. Our eighth and sixth graders have a one mile walk east to the middle school. A new building for the 6th grader, but he walks with our seasoned 8th grader, she will show him the way for his first day. And in another half an hour, we will walk our 4th grader two blocks to his first day. This is how we handle school mornings and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. 

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I would say we are fortunate to live in a walkable school district, but this was a very deliberate choice. I can say we are very fortunate that we ARE able to live in a walkable school district, because they aren’t that easy to come by these days. In fact, the very nature of walkable schools is the reason we moved. 

Prior to moving to Pittsburgh, we lived in a smaller city about 30 minutes outside Columbus. There is so much I love about small towns, but the backwards politics can at times be too much. When the kids first went to school, they attended a wonderful elementary just three blocks from our house. I have the fondest memories of walking the kids to East Elementary every single day. It was the walk itself, but also getting to know other parents, and having a chance to get to know the teachers. In walking to school, I felt much more connected to the school as a whole and felt more comfortable with the education my kids were getting. I knew the people teaching them. 

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Around 2012, the school district floated out a proposal to close a handful of the neighborhood schools and consolidate those student populations into fewer larger new schools. My most perfect little East Elementary School was on the chopping block. This building that had so dutifully served its purpose for nearly one hundred years was going to put out to pasture for the fault of being old. The building couldn’t compete with the districts desire for new and improved. Which is a damn shame for every single person that attended East and had fond memories. It was exactly what an elementary school should be: in the middle of a neighborhood; reasonably sized; walkable, and pretty. It wasn’t ornamental or decorative, but it was beautiful. I loved everything about East School, both inside and out. There is something special about attending school in a place where generations have gone before you. Walking the same halls and playing on the same playground as people 80 years older than you. It’s the connective tissue of place that binds people together. These links foster a sense of community. The ties should be cherished and preserved. 

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Well once the proposal was floated out there, the drumbeat grew steadily louder The reasons to move forward were many and convoluted, the reasons to remain the same were few, but well established. Let me see if I can recall all the great reasons to move away from many walkable schools. 

Point - The buildings were old and the district needed new technology 
Counterpoint - I have seen old buildings with new technology. Pretty sure the White House has the internet. 

Point - It’s hard to learn in an environment where the facilities are so dated. 
Counterpoint - See Harvard. 

Point - Parents prefer newer school facilities and may move to our district for them.  
Counterpoint- again, see Harvard. 

Point - The buildings have not been properly maintained.
Counterpoint - So instead of maintaining the building, we are going to throw it out? What message does that send to the kids. Is it going to be cheaper to build new than repair the old? 

Point - The buildings don’t have air conditioning. 
Counterpoint - I suppose we can manage for those 15 days.  And you can put air conditioning in an old building. I once put a new stereo in an old car, instead of driving it into the river and buying a new car. 

Point - Overall, new facilities will improve the school system. 
Counterpoint - Nope. But paying teachers more will. So why not invest in the teachers? 

And on and on. Many of these points actually came home via my daughter as she was lobbied in her second grade classroom. Eventually, the demand for new and improved won out and the school district moved forward with plans to shut down some of the neighborhood schools and consolidate. A happy day for many, a sad day for some. I just couldn’t see all the advantages everyone else did. 

One last year in our neighborhood school while construction on the new school was completed. At the end of the year, our sweet little East School was closed for good with no discernible plan in place for dealing with the facility. The neighborhood lost an anchor and with it, life on the street. The neighborhood will definitely suffer for this change. But hey, progress right? 

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And with the next new school year came a new school. This school housed the student population that used to attend multiple neighborhood schools. So now, with the majority of the students being farther away from their school, the number of students walking dropped precipitously. It was sad. The result was less life on the street, more kids lost what little autonomy they had, more parents were hurried in the morning and afternoons, traffic increased twice a day in the beneficial interactions between parents and teachers disappeared. Just as one would expect, pickup and drop-off time were a traffic nightmare. Cars jammed up all the streets surrounding the school. All this, but why? 

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I had a chance to go through the new school multiple times. It just didn’t matter. It had to character, no charm. It was cold. It certainly was not pretty. It was hard to love. Which is sad, because important buildings should be lovable. Building are meant to externally reflect the important purpose of the interior activities. This is the reason churches, courts, civic buildings, and libraries look the way they do, because these buildings are housing important activities. These institutions help uphold our society and it is important that they look important. It is the same with schools. The buildings should externally represent the important internal activity they house. What’s so sad is that on the very site where the constructed the new school once sat an absolutely beautiful historic school. I don’t know what drove these decisions, but they are very hard to comprehend. 

North School used to sit on the same site and it was absolutely gorgeous. For some reason that I cant understand, but probably having something to do with lack of maintenance, the school was decommissioned. Apparently, when you don’t take care or something, it falls apart. The building was left empty and spent 10 years deteriorating before everyone’s eyes. The neighborhood declined around this withering monument. Eventually the decision was made to spend tens of thousands of dollars to tear it down. And in an absolute sharknado of fiscal irresponsibility, the school district built a brand new school on the same site just three years later. Again, I have to ask what was the point of all of this? 

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One year at the new school and we knew we were done. We missed walking through the neighborhoods. We missed seeing everyone. We missed being at a school that felt like a school. We realized that this was not the school system for us. We understood that we did not share the same values as the place that was helping to shape our children. There seemed to be a disconnect between the community the schools served and the schools themselves. The community in which every institution is housed has a direct impact on all of those institutions. The well being of the community as a whole effects everyone and everything in it. The school made a decision based on its own best interest, but neglected to consider how it would affect the community as a whole. It was a problem we couldn’t ignore. The school board spent millions to demolish something beautiful, only to replace it with an inferior version. The priorities of the school board made me question the education the kids were receiving. I am sure the school board had their reasons for making these decisions, and maybe they were right for most, but they weren’t right for me and my family. The thing is, no matter which way I look at it, I cant come up with a way in which these decisions made the community stronger.

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We made a decision and at the end of the school year we relocated to Pittsburgh. When we started looking at neighborhoods, our first consideration was walkable schools. We felt that this one area told us so many of the things we needed to know about the district as a whole. If the school system valued walking then we also knew the community was walkable. It also indicated the school system cared about neighborhoods and what went on outside its walls. We knew it would be easier to meet people as well and that the streets would be lively. This one indicator told us so much more about the community. We found a community just a few miles south of downtown and we have not been disappointed. The district is 6 square miles and there are no busses. Everyone is encouraged to walk and with 7 elementary schools spread out across the district, everyone can. There are 2 middle schools and a centrally located high school, so nearly every student in the district can reasonably walk to their school. 

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This simple feature of our school system has a profound effect on the community as a whole. Kids are very much a part of the neighborhood. They are not hauled off and hidden along the edges all day long. 4th and 5th graders at our local elementary school are allowed to leave at lunch and go home or eat at local restaurants. The two commercial districts in town are alive with students every lunchtime. Since kids walk to school, it never feels dangerous to let your kids walk. The neighborhood has walking ingrained in its DNA so kids feel comfortable walking to the library, to a friends or to the pool. And because kids are always walking everywhere, drivers must pay close attention. Traffic is generally slow throughout the neighborhood because of this. It is also because of the walkable school that we know so many more people in our neighborhood. You can only pass someone so many times at pickup or drop-off without striking up a conversation. Our elementary school is nearly 100 years old and somehow still manages to win awards and it even has the internet.

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I don’t consult with schools so I don’t really know the business of running one, but I do consult with communities and there is an incredibly strong tie between the heath of a community and its school system. Parents, teachers and faculty alike, are all going to be drawn to stronger, healthier communities. Any school system will perform better when the community improves. Just look at real estate values, there is a significant premium across the country being paid because the demand for walkable communities is so high. Moving schools out of the neighborhoods puts off more people than it attracts.

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The number of kids walking to school is down to 10% in the United States. That is an incredibly sad figure for parents and kids alike. Sad for the kids that don’t get the opportunity to walk through the streets with friends. Sad for all the parents that struggle to meet new people. Sad for teachers whose potential raises have to go towards bussing. Sad for the parents that might like to know the teachers better. Sad for all the kids that could benefit from a little more autonomy and adventure. And every time I hear an adult complain about kids not playing outside these days, I can safely assume they support the closure of the neighborhood schools. But hey, progress, right? 

Amber Davidson