Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Cultivating leaps of faith

Just read this piece, America's Youth Uprising, in the March 5 / 12 issue of The Nation, which reminds me that it does matter that people stand up.

It has made a difference to me: I am willing to stand up, too.

Also, the piece reminded me that anthropology matters in all this:

I could not help recalling on that remarkable night the response of Claude Lévi-Strauss to requests that he identify the “golden age” of human civilization. The father of modern anthropology rejected the question as absurd on its face, and absurdly disempowering in its implications. In Tristes Tropiques, Lévi-Strauss explained that “if men have always been concerned with only one task—how to create a society fit to live in—the forces which inspired our distant ancestors are also present in us. Nothing is settled; everything can still be altered. What was done but turned out wrong, can be done again. ‘The Golden Age,’ which blind superstition had placed behind [or ahead of] us, is in us.” Those are not blandly optimistic words. They are demanding. They suggest that we have fewer excuses than we thought, that this is the place, that now is the time and that there is truth in the maxim that we are the people we’ve been waiting for.

That Levi-Strauss. He is good to think (and act!) with.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Why we need our neighborhood schools

Last Thursday, the superintendent of our city's school district told parents that the district would consider “drastic measures” that could include ending non-mandatory programs (which include Kindergarten and AP courses) as well as the closing of a school.

I wish to defend the importance and necessity of both the programs that now face elimination and all four of our neighborhood elementary schools.

Across the district, at the elementary schools and at the middle school and the high school, we all have withstood cuts in programs and staff already. I worry about the consequences that further "compromises" will have for our children. What opportunities are they being (and will they be) denied?

Although closing a school is discussed as though it were a solution, it is not. Our community-centered elementary schools are critical in terms of the quality educational experiences that they provide to our children in grades K-6, and the present and future sustainability and growth of Oneonta as a community where families live and work.

A school closure by itself would neither close a financial gap nor prevent further cuts, as reported when the Board of Education undertook its district-wide Space Utilization Study last summer. The budget subcommittee found instead that it would erode the quality of our children’s educational experiences as class sizes increased throughout the district.

In addition, the consequences of closing any one of our four neighborhood elementary schools also would reach well beyond the classroom as neighbors lose their jobs, families sell their homes and move from the area, businesses lose their clients and customers, and we lose the talent and energies of people we need in Oneonta. We also will have even more difficulty attracting new blood to build their businesses here (or work at our two colleges, where I know from experience that search committees can have a hard time "selling" qualified candidates on our small upstate city).

When people start to ask how can we afford to keep what we have, there is only one answer: How can we afford not to keep them?

Yet, these are times when our understanding of what is practical, possible, and necessary have become increasingly constrained - I might even venture to say confused.

Why are we selling out to austerity even the things that matter to us?

We should be fighting it, especially when, in fact, the resources do exist:

Mail your hand-written letters to Albany and demand that they release the $250 million from competitive grants and distribute it to the small city and rural schools that have been most severely affected in these times.

Make your voice heard at Board of Education meetings, letting them know that we need and want for our community a long range vision that both provides support for and draws support from strong neighborhood schools.

We should be fighting it b/c in the end, the things that we sell out now will not come back to us later.

We need to stand now for what we value – like programs that clearly are critical to our children’s learning and community-centered schools, which are among our small city’s attractions and assets.

This is not a matter of either / or. We need them both.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

What do we want? An agenda

On Thursday evening, I attended a forum (or rally) in support of a neighboring district’s schools – along with more than 600 parents, teachers, students and community members from around the region coming together to stand up and speak up for our schools. For me, a few themes emerged from the event: The first was that it was not just about that district's schools. It was about all of our schools. The second was that the problem facing school districts in upstate New York (like ours) is rooted in the way that state aid is distributed, and that as a consequence, kids in upstate districts are being systematically disadvantaged.

The third was that ordinary people like myself not only are aware (or becoming aware) of the inequities, but we also are willing to stand up and speak up against them.

I have been thinking a lot the last few days about what it means – what it actually means – to “stand up” and “speak up” for our schools. It is one thing to say that we want the unfairness to be addressed, but how does that happen? What do we do? Also, how do we find a way to stand together when there is already division among community members on what the problems are and how to solve them – as I wrote about in my previous post, there are parents and other residents in my district who believe that closing the elementary school that my daughter attends will close the budget gap without any other consequences (which in fact is not true).

Not to mention that there is also a lot of disillusionment about whether or not we can make a difference at all.

What is an agenda that we can all back together?

Here is mine:

1. The goal: Work together are parents, teachers, community members, and citizens to demand that our state legislators take the immediate, short-term action of releasing $250 million from competitive grants, and direct them to districts in need. This will make the difference for districts like ours and our neighbors in Unatego, which have been forced to consider cuts to important programs – Unatego is discussing the elimination of kindergarten, which is not state-mandated – and even school closures for the 2012-2013 academic year. What we can do: Get involved with efforts like Unatego United and Support Oneonta Schools or organize with groups like Parent Teacher Organizations or even just get together neighbors and friends. Get informed by reading and / or asking your neighbors and friends, then with others. Attend meetings of concerned citizens groups and of the Board of Education and Common Council, and ask questions and / or contribute your comments as a parent and community member. Write and send letters and / or sign Web-based petitions. (See my previous posts. Also, see the Facebook pages for Unatego United and Support Oneonta Schools.) One voice along might not be heard, but all of us speaking together will be.

2. The goal: Work together to put pressure our state legislators to reconsider the formula that determines how state aid is distributed to school districts in the first place. The formula disadvantages lower-wealth districts, such as ours in upstate New York. This is not about “saving” any particular school, but about saving all of our schools – that is, defending the right of every child in our state to a sound, basic education. It is a right that is being infringed upon – and, I am afraid, long has been. Our kids ought to be able to have opportunities that we ourselves had in our schools and that even our parents had – like programs in athletics, art and music, Advanced Placement courses, and kindergarten – and that kids in higher wealth districts take for granted. What we can do: Not only get involved and informed, but stay involved and informed. Vote.

3. The goal: Work together within our district and across our neighboring districts to develop a long-range plan to support strong schools and strong communities. I am a transplant to upstate New York, but I know that the schools and communities here have been in a near-chronic state of crisis. We need to take charge of what we can. On the one hand, in a place like where I live, I think it would be smart to recognize the significance of neighborhood schools in building and maintaining community, in the dollars and cents sense and in other senses, too. A school closure and / or layoffs might “save” a school district money, but think about what it will cost the entire community as families move, houses stand vacant, property values diminish, local businesses start to fade, and so on. It seems to me that efforts need to be coordinated to strengthen both the schools and the community. On the other hand, unless there is a sudden, but long-lasting change in demographic trends, schools will be closing: It might be a school within our district (and the criteria for which school is not as clear as some might think). Or it might be an entire central school in a smaller district, which puts pressure on the school or schools that begin receiving the displaced students. So, I think it might be smart to have conversations within districts and across districts. What we can do: Resolve to stay involved and informed for the years to come. Let my local school board and city aldermen and county executives, et al., know that I expect them not to back off, but to develop and act upon an intelligent plan for the next 1, 2, 5, 7, 10 years and so on. B/c I believe better governance comes from a strong opposition (and I believe temperamentally that is where I personally am better suited to be…), be strong in both my support for and criticism of the plans.

So, that is my agenda. What is yours?

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Why this is not a foregone conclusion

A friend just forwarded me this link to the report in today's local paper on our city school district's budget gap:

With the state looking to close its budget deficit, the district is facing a $2.4 million cut in state aid for the 2012-13 school year under Gov. Andrew Cuomo's budget plan, business manager Lisa Weeks said.

This decreases state aid to levels below six years ago, she said. The legislature still has to weigh in on the issue before a final state budget is approved. The deadline is April 1.

With this loss of federal funds and other revenue, the district is taking several initiatives. These includes offering retirement incentives to reduce staffing, working as a team to come up with possibilities, writing legislators to help them understand the impact if the cuts are made, and communicating with staff and community.

Interestingly enough, the newspaper did not report a school closure as a possibility. Of course, the rest of us are aware that it probably is.

When I started this blog post, there were only three comments online, but they make clear that there are a number of community members who seem convinced that a school closure is inevitable - and that the school that ought to close is the one that my daughter and her friends currently attend.

What bothers me about the comments are the suggestions that operating four community-centered schools is a "waste" of taxpayer money; that concerning which building, if any, should be closed, "the cut is clear"; and that "even with the school closing doesn't mean children have to be affected. All you are doing is essentially closing down a building and all the costs it incurs."

I understand as well as the commenters that we very well might be forced to close a school, but I think it also ought to be understood that the "savings" themselves come at such a cost that we as a community need to approach a school closure as a careful, deliberate process.

Simply closing a school will not solve the problem by itself. If only it were that simple, then the many communities that already have had to close their schools should be better off, expanding the opportunities for students and restoring the programs that were cut, but this is not necessarily the case. I am afraid that the research that I have been reading about school closures contradicts the comment about children not being affected and closing a building being simple.

This is why I think we cannot treat school closure as the foregone conclusion.

I will be upfront about it being my particular wish to see my neighborhood school open b/c it is unquestionably a vibrant place, where I see my daughter and her friends thriving, and its continued existence is so vital to the place that we call home. I know that other parents must feel the same about their neighborhood schools, and I will not support closing any one of their schools for the sake of saving my own. If any one of our schools closes, then we all will feel it. So, for the moment, can we all just agree not to turn this into a fight among ourselves - and if / when a school closes, can we also agree to try to handle it as sensitively and patiently as such a loss deserves?

I want to reserve my anger for the unfairness with which our entire school district - and our neighboring school districts in NYS - have been treated.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Please print this post, sign it, and send it (See addresses in comments)

Thursday, February 9th, 2012, Unatego High School, Otego NY (13825-2193)

As a tax-paying citizen in a school district in upstate New York, the following issues concern me:

•The state’s “Gap Elimination Adjustment”. It created a gap in our school district budget, which cannot be offset by raising taxes or firing teachers.

•The governor’s proposed budget. Not all of the $805 million increase for 2012-13 is available for equitable distribution. $250 million is allotted for competitive grants, which poorer rural districts will likely not receive.

•The upcoming loss of federal aid. Federal aid over the last two years has saved us from program cuts. That aid will not be renewed.

•The possibility of cutting non-mandated programs including kindergarten, sports, occupational education, AP courses, and cafeteria services. The gap created by the Gap Elimination Adjustment will force Unatego and other districts to cut any or all of these.

•THE POSSIBILITY OF CLOSING A SCHOOL BUILDING OR A SCHOOL DISTRICT. The loss of a school building will undermine communities, and if school districts have to shut their doors, that will affect quality of life of ALL CITIZENS OF NEW YORK STATE.

I, __________________________________ state that the above
(print name, town, and zip code)
issues deeply concern me, and that I plea to your action and leadership to advocate for a more equitable funding formula for state aid to my school district and the removal of the Gap Elimination Adjustment.

Respectfully submitted, __________________________
(sign name)

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

We are ALL Center Street / Valleyview / Riverside / Greater Plains

Here is a comment that was posted on my previous post here at parenthropology:

I like the idea of rallying the other schools, parents, citizens, etc. together to protect them all. Unfortunately, some of the opinions of parents of the other schools is very disappointing. They are under the assumption that if a school closes it will be Center Street, therefore won't affect them. Closing of any school will be devastating to the whole community, but people aren't seeing it that way!

I think this shows that we need a little (or a lot) of good, old-fashioned organizing.

I have embraced social media, but I also think we just need to talk to each other as parents and neighbors, and do our best to keep each other informed.

In fact, based on what I have heard the superintendent and others working with the board of education say previously, my understanding is that it is not obvious that Center Street would be the school to be closed. That impression holds from a previous move to close the school during the 1980s. However, at least three of the four elementary schools (not just Center Street) have had their ups and downs in enrollment also.

So, none of us is necessarily “safe.”

There is, unfortunately, a growing body of research on the impact of school closures. A recent report from the Pew Charitable Trusts shows that closing a school does not on its own close a budget gap. There are both the immediate costs of busing students, and the long-term effects on the local economy if / when community members lose their jobs, families move from the area, homes stand vacant, and properties lose their value. Nor will it prevent further cuts in school programs, much less restore cuts that already have been made in the past.

(Please see the links to research on my previous post, and share them with others. Also, please forward additional sources to me, so I can include them here.)

I think it is more than fair to ask: What actually will we gain from closing a school?

This is why I think it is important for parents at all four schools in our district not to see treat this as "Center Street's problem" – or let it become a contest to see some other school that is not their own fall. I am a Center Street parent, but I want just as much not to see a closure at Valleyview or Riverside or Greater Plains.

Or in the Unatego school district, for that matter. Which brings me to this:

Please consider attending to stand up for our neighbors and for our own city's schools.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Occupy Our Schools

I am writing this for my friends and neighbors in our city's school district - and for friends and neighbors elsewhere who are facing the same kinds of challenges. (If you have experience or advice to share, please do!)

Tonight, I went to the PTO meeting at my daughter's elementary school and heard the tough news from our principal that the city school district, like so many others in the U.S. today, is facing a gap (about $2 million) and that there is talk now about possibly having to close one of the four elementary schools.

We live about four blocks from our elementary school. In fact, this is one of the reasons that we chose to make our home in the "Center City" area - and I know that a number of our neighbors and friends make the same choice for the same reason. My daughter has walked to / from school almost every day since the day she started kindergarten, and my son looks forward to that day coming this September when he will be walking along with her. Or so I hope.

We love our school. To be honest, the playgrounds are small, the parking is non-existent (or so I hear, as I have brought the car around only two or three times en route to a doctor's appointment...), and it is not the fanciest or most modern building. What can I say? The school is like our family. We accept the quirks. They are our quirks. My sense is that other parents and teachers feel like this about our school.

So, the prospect of our school closing is, of course, painful to consider. However, I find the prospect of any of the four schools closing to be painful. Because the schools each are more than buildings where teaching and learning happen. They are the centers of neighborhoods and communities.

Also, the more I think about it, I become less and less convinced that closing a school must be inevitable. (Or not properly resourcing a library or art and music programs or physical education, for that matter.) Just like poverty is not so much about a lack of wealth, but its inequitable distribution, so it is with the funding of public education.

When I arrived at home, I went upstairs and kissed both my children, then came straight back down and browsed the Web for reading on the impacts of school closures - economic, social and academic. Admittedly, this is just a quick perusal of what I found online, but I am underwhelmed by the "savings." (However, it seems that the academic performance of kids affected when a school is close is neither negatively nor positively impacted.)

The theme that emerged in my reading is that closing a school costs a lot.

Another theme is that closing a school takes a lot of planning in public for it to go at all well. Here is a summary of a report on Closing Public Schools in Philadelphia: Lessons from Six Urban Districts from the Pew Charitable Trusts. The link to the report itself is in the summary.

I am sharing the links I browsed below - in particular, I am finding esp. interesting the resources at National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, which is a non-profit, non-governmental agency that receives support from Congress, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, whose resources on community-centered schools apply (I think) to all four schools in our city's school district:

Resource lists: School closure, consolidation, and co-location (National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities)

The fiscal impacts of school consolidation: Research based conclusions (The Rural School and Community Trust, June 1, 2003)

National Trust for Historic Preservation – Resources for Advocates and Policy Makers

National Trust for Historic Preservation – Report: “Helping Johnny Walk to School: Sustaining Community through Smart Policy”

National Trust for Historic Preservation – Position on Community-Centered Schools

In addition, you can download PDFs of the following - just google the titles:

A Community Guide to Saving Older Schools by Kerri Rubman (National Trust for Historic Preservation)

“How to Save Your Historic School” by Rob Nieweg, Coordinator of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Historic Neighborhood Schools Initiative.

Here are a couple of articles in local media elsewhere reporting on the impacts that school closures have had on communities:

The implications of closing Holly Elementary (The Rail, Holly, Michigan, February 8, 2011)

How school closure impacted a community (Atlanta Constitution-Journal, April 11, 2010)

Thursday, February 2, 2012

A feminist's work is never done

I took a brief hiatus from blogging to start the spring semester and turn in my tenure file. Hooray, hooray.

However, I also have been on a bit of a FB rampage for the last few days b/c it seems like every time I check in, there is a post about yet another example of how a feminist's work is never done:

In case you had decided to drop off FB for a while, the matter currently raging is the decision made by the board of Susan Komen for the Cure - an organization that has done such praiseworthy work raising awareness and funds for breast cancer research - to withdraws its support of cancer screening and prevention activities from Planned Parenthood.

See this pie chart from the Washington Post, which illustrates what services Planned Parenthood actually provides.

I think it is important to note that abortion services account for only 3 percent of PP's activities. However, I personally do not think that is worth crowing over. There are any number of PP clinics that offer no abortion services, period. Which means that there are too many women who do not have abortion services accessible and available to them. I get that it is likely smart in today's political climate to spin PP as 97 percent not abortion, but I also feel like we who are taking a stand with Planned Parenthood need to get away from being oh so apologetic about abortion. Its accessibility and availability are concerns of dignity and justice.

Here is a petition being made to the Komen foundation, and here is one in support of Planned Parenthood.

In other news:

* The New York Times published an opinion piece, "Pregnant, and Pushed out of a Job,".

* Kate Clancy posted this story on sexual harassment in academia.

* The Huffington Post reposted this from Denene Milner over at My Brown Baby - a painful piece on "Birthing While Black."

What a week. So, we all should get some rest b/c we clearly have a lot to do.