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The Meaning of Neighborhood Schools

We tend to think of neighborhood public schools solely in terms of how successful they are in teaching the basics. So when test scores show that they are not achieving that goal, they are written off as failing.

But parents in Chicago don't agree with that assessment and vow to continue fighting to keep their neighborhood schools open after the Chicago Board of Education unanimously voted to shutter 49 elementary schools ("Despite Protests, Chicago to Close 49 Schools," The New York Times, May 23). School officials claim that closing the half-empty schools will save more than $500 million over the next decade in capital costs and operating expenses.

I've already written about the conflict such closures create ("Closing Failing Schools Is Risky," Mar. 4). But I don't think anyone who is not directly affected can fully appreciate the reasons for the opposition. For poor families, neighborhood schools are not merely places for learning subject matter. They often provide safe havens for their children in the form of after-school activities. Although the schools may not always measure up academically, they meet a distinct need not measured by standardized tests. I'm not saying that all schools slated for closure fall into that category. Some have no business existing. But let's not be so quick to assume that parents judge the value of public schools solely by test scores.

The usual argument for shuttering underperforming schools is to allow children to escape. There is some truth to that claim. Parents want the best for their children. However, they don't always base their decision on academics alone. Whether this is wise is a matter only they can decide. I attended K-12 in the same suburban public school district. My parents were interested only in the quality of the curriculum and instruction. What transpired after school was an afterthought. But for parents in different circumstances, the latter is as important as the former. Perhaps that helps explain what is taking place in Chicago and elsewhere.

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