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How Can We Make Schools a Center of Community Life?

Dear Pedro,

I love it! Brockton makes a good story, and while I'm a perennial skeptic about schools that beat the odds so convincingly, I'm willing to suspend belief. I hope I can visit there sometime this coming year. What's your sense of the incoming 9th grade? What are their literacy skills at that point? In order to focus on literacy, did the school do less of something else—and if so, what?

A good 4th grader is actually a pretty good reader, as long as the reading matter isn't too sophisticated. They lack often mostly in "subject matter," so to speak.

Anyway, I don't see the polarities as between those at Brockton and those at Mission Hill, etc.

Moving on, I'm thinking about my opponents, who come in varied types. Let me name at least three:

(1) The folks dedicated to taking schooling out of the public sphere and encouraging more ways to think of them as money-makers.

(2) Those who are simply unable to see the issues from the ground up—those who "see like a state," in author James C. Scott's language.

(3) The third group is made up of people who operate on the assumption that, on the whole, the troubles of the poor are the fault of poor communities, but not of their poverty. It's the fault of black families with absent fathers, but not of what has happened to black men in our racist society. These No. 3 types therefore think that the kind of schooling right for "theirs" is not right for "those." They would not tolerate a system that might lower their own children's position on rank-ordered ladder from the least to the most.

I might think the Brockton types are mistaken, or perhaps not asking enough, etc., etc. But we are tackling (from what you say) the same issues. My concern about some "no excuses" schools is that while they aim at getting kids into college, etc., they do not recognize the potential liberating aspects of education—the kind of liberation that insists also on solidarity with others, rather than climbing over them. Do you, however, think that Brockton is also serving well youngsters like your own or that we have to make a choice?

I've been fooling around with ideas for how we could structure public education so that it improves the odds for both the Brocktons and the Mission Hills. How we can have both strong neighborhood communities who see their schools as common ground, and have choice. How we could have both neighborhood and schools of choice that enhance integration across race and class.

How we can have broad public rules—do's and don't's, especially on issues of equality and health—while giving communities and schools wide latitude to design the rules they need for the schools they seek.

I'd like to explore how parents, students, communities, and school staff can be decisionmakers, while sorting how the critical "who decides what" issues. How can we gather public information about what is happening in schools and to children without prejudicing the information by attaching high stakes? How can we make schools a center of community life, surrounded by adult activity, open at least 10 hours a day and 7 days a week?

As I try to fall asleep, I find myself creating solutions. Like making detailed plans for tomorrow's class lesson, it's easier to plan than implement. If only these ornery parents, children, colleagues, voters, etc. would go along with my great ideas ... So it probably will only be possible to explore concrete ideas and solutions to the above dilemmas through real-world experimentation. That's what made District 4 and Pilot schools et al so exciting, because they exposed for me the roadblocks that reality imposes! If we can design schools and networks with sufficient autonomy and flexibility, we might begin to see what the alternatives might look like and what trade-offs each has made. It would be fun to collaboratively create a design for improving the odds, starting with just our different histories and experiences, and then opening it up to others.


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