Localized schools build lively communities

By Grace Lee Boggs

Michigan Citizen, Apr.11-17, 2010

Detroiters of all ages and backgrounds are meeting and marching to reject the Bing/Bobb proposals to downsize Detroit schools. "This is our city. These are our schools. No one has the right to determine our future without us."

We are not only protesting their high-handedness. We are proposing an alternative: Localized schools to build lively communities.

When education is localized, a new dynamic is created. Kids are engaged because their studies make a difference in their lives. They want to learn because their education centers around solving real problems. Teachers have more time and energy to relate to students because they no longer have sole responsibility for preparing curriculum and don't need to concentrate on maintaining order.

When education is localized, students come up with imaginative ways to develop the local economy. For example, a student study at Howard H.S. in Miner County, S. D. revealed that residents were buying their needs at out-of town stores. When the study was made public, shopping at local stores increased and helped revive the local economy. The students followed up on this success by organizing community visioning meetings, out of which came strategies to create high quality local jobs.

When education is localized, neighborhood residents are motivated to invest time and effort in their schools. For example, at the Barbara Jordan and Nsoroma Institute in Detroit, the Greener Schools Initiative to transform schools into community educational hubs has been started by the East Michigan Environmental Action Council (EMEAC). Students, teachers, and neighbors work together to create better schools, neighborhoods, and communities. Environmental justice (EJ) labs are created inside the school. Community Environmental Fellows from the surrounding community are recruited to facilitate the labs. Participatory landscape architecture and community mapping programs create new concepts for the areas surrounding the school.

The Greener Schools Initiative gives teachers within the Detroit school system a unique opportunity to empower neighborhood children to take a stand for justice. As schools shrink, EJ labs provide an educational haven, transforming empty classrooms into centers for innovation and community visioning, starting with their very own schoolyard.

The Greener Schools Initiative trains the Community Environmental Fellows to teach environmental justice education and a variety of community relevant subjects, including biodiversity, air quality monitoring, and media making, The Fellows not only facilitate civic engagement. By learning and teaching new skills, they become a way for the community to reinvest in neighborhood schools and the school to invest in the community.

Students work with the Fellows to design their green schoolyard. They solicit input from neighbors to incorporate cultural and special interest features (like exploration strawbale construction, butterfly gardens and native plants).

Just imagine how much safer and livelier our neighborhoods and communities would be if, instead of keeping children isolated in classrooms, we engaged them in community-building activities like these with the same audacity with which the Freedom Movement engaged them in desegregation work 45 years ago: planting community gardens, recycling waste, creating alternative transportation and work sites, organizing neighborhood arts and health festivals, broadcasting radio shows, rehabbing houses, painting public murals. By giving children and young people a reason to learn beyond the individualistic goal of getting a job and making more money, by encouraging them to commit their minds, hearts and soul power to their communities and cities NOW instead of to careers on Wall St. or in D.C. and even China (!), we would tap into the deep well of human values that gives our lives richer meaning.

Instead of trying to bully young people to remain in classrooms isolated from the community and structured only to prepare them for a rapidly disappearing job market, we need to recognize that the reason so many young people drop out from schools is because they are voting with their feet against an educational system which sorts, tracks, tests, and rejects or certifies them like products in a factory. They are crying out for an experience that values and respects them as human beings.

There is a democratic alternative to downsizing. We can create it here in Detroit.

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