Thursday, June 28, 2007

Learning communities vs. school inequity

I have two conflicting views about schools today. Well, I probably have a lot more than that, but two significant ones have emerged in the past few days.

They jelled last night at a meeting five of us had with my Hillsdale neighbor, and now new school board member, Ruth Adkins.

The five of us are members of something called “the Coalition for Commercial-Free Schools.” The name pretty much says it all. We don’t think our schools should be exploited for marketing purposes, no matter how much corporations are willing to pay the strapped schools for exclusive access to our kids.

That said, my conflicting views don’t have anything directly to do with commercialism in the schools.

No, it’s an even bigger problem than that.

Ruth shared with us the Portland school district’s apparent interest in having schools and their communities work more closely together. That’s a move in the right direction.

For sometime I’ve argued that schools and their communities should be one — that we should consider our schools being wall-less. We should think of them as having permeable membranes, if you will. Kids, parents, grandparents, teachers, business owners, lawyers, carpenters, fire-fighters, housewives and househusbands — everybody — would flow through the school and through the community.

We would all teach each other.

And if you don’t think kids can teach you anything, I have a question for you: When was the last time you text-messaged?

So that’s one view: Communities and schools should be one. In essence, we shouldn’t have schools but community learning centers. Ideally, communities would BE learning centers, or more exactly, learning communities. (And that means striking up a new relationship with media and the time we spend with it — but don’t get me started….)

So here’s the conflict. Late last year I volunteered to read a few thousand community responses to the Mayor’s Visioning Project, VisionPDX. My assigned readings happened to be about schools. A major theme in the responses was that Portland suffers gross inequities between schools in different parts of the city. Our children simply aren’t being granted equal opportunity in the classroom.

Something has to be done about the problem. Unfortunately, I don’t see the solution in community learning centers, or learning communities. If anything, prosperous communities will have prosperous learning centers, and poor communities will have poor learning centers.

Indeed the inequities could become much worse under my proposed “permeable membrane” approach.

So as I talked this through with Ruth and the others Wednesday night, I invoked an idea I have floated about developing model Portland Town Centers, a model Hillsdale Town Center being one of them. The idea is to pair town centers (and communties) that are diverse. Lents and Hillsdale, for example.

How can we help each other? What can we learn from each other? I’ve even thought that measurements of success should yoke the progress of the paired communities. Unless both succeed, neither does.

Have I resolved my conflict about learning communities? Not really. At best, it is a hypothetical resolution to a hypothetical problem. Until we reshape our schools and our neighborhoods into learning communities with community learning centers, we won’t have the luxury of addressing this kind of problem.

Still, if the school district does indeed move ahead with linking schools and communities, it should do so in a way that ends educational inequity in Portland.

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