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The Importance of Community: Connecting Schools and Neighborhoods

Deborah Meier continues her conversation with Harry Boyte andĀ David Randall, director of communications for the National Association of Scholars. To read their full exchange, please visitĀ here.

Dear Harry and friends,

I'm in too much agreement. As one taught from birth to argue it leaves me speechless. It's not often that progressives quote "the Catholic idea of subsidiarity, devolving power to the lowest possible unit." We should.

One of my favorite magazines, eagerly read from cover to cover, is Commentary, a liberal Catholic magazine. I got into it because the former co-editors Peter and Peggy Steinfels were editors and friends.

To my amazement, I even found the theological arguments fascinating. But perhaps it's also because I was becoming more aware of the essential role of community. Democracy presumes community in a way I had ignored, as though it could be taken for granted.

The schools I have had responsibility for starting have been wonderful examples of community. But. I wish they had also been part of another community and could use their loyalties to the school community to build the community they were located in and also belonged to. We weren't aliens, most of our students came from nearby as did some of the staff, and we involved ourselves in the local world—including it in our curriculum, observing and intervening in it as seemed appropriate. But we accepted a trade-off that may have been wise. We decided, given the invitation to start a school of choice in East Harlem, to demonstrate how progressive schools can to be popular and successful in neighborhoods most progressive educators had written off. "Those" families want traditional, orderly, quiet, adult-centered schools, they said. We wanted to prove them wrong. What families wanted, perhaps, was a school that respected them and their children and prepared them for the real, often harsh world.

Preparing children to accept the world as it is and to be a compliant member of it was wise advice, perhaps, when the real world offered such bleak alternatives for poor children, above all for poor children of color. Survival was, in the eyes of many parents, the only feasible response.

But while racism is still flourishing, and compliance is sometimes wise advice, young people now, more than ever, need to be able to make critical decisions as they grow into adulthood. They need what Harry refers to as "agency". Self-agency is at the heart of Dewey's progressive idea, to see oneself (and one's community) as the makers of history not the objects for others to use and abuse. We claimed that dignity and self-respect are basic needs of humans and to take it away does incalculable harm.

And we were right. We were a District school serving East Harlem, but within five years we had such long waiting lists of East Harlem families that we opened two more sister schools in the District. At the District's request, we began to accept families from out of the district. They came from central Harlem, the liberal Westside, and from the Bronx. We kept their numbers down, and during the first 20 years we never had more than 25% white children, often less, especially in the secondary school which we opened in 1985.

I think it was not our teaching methods or even our curriculum that spread the word, but our respect for each other, the children, their families. And the fact that, for whatever reason, the children loved to come to school and talked about it at home. Add to that the time we spent meeting with families and including them in decisions.

And eventually we had the evidence we needed: The kids did well after they left us. They got high school diplomas, got into colleges, and were alive. As adults looking back, most said it's the school they'd send their kids to. Some, rightfully perhaps, said we should have prepared them to read textbooks and that we hadn't prepared them sufficiently for how the rest of the world teaches math. I just got a long email from one of our first students who said he was thinking of me and CPE lately, because it was so easy to be discouraged and he needed a boost.

So I think we made a good and sensible choice. The times are harder now, but hurrah—the "bad guys" made a great decision in eliminating federal requirements for taking tests. They may destroy public schooling, but they got one right. I'm curious why.

Deb

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