bringing schools back into our communities

Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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26 Responses

  1. mike farmer says:

    As an aside to the analogy you made, about corner stores, in Savannah, in the historic district where I live, there are are old corner stores which are vacant, yet some of them are coming back to life. I would love to see a small store association created along of the line of the NAPA auto parts model so they would have wholesale buying power to compete with Walmart. I love community stores. The idea of community-focused schools, responsive to local needs and creatively offering various educational avenues like trade crafts is an idea I’ve proposed for quite awhile. Very good post — now if you can get past your reservations and get all radical, we’ll get closer to some ass-kickin’ solutions. 🙂Report

    • E.D. Kain in reply to mike farmer says:

      Thanks mike. I suppose I can see room in all of this for private involvement – if kids are at a “corner school” they might need to go eat at a local bakery since they might not have a cafeteria (see Nathan’s post on this at the trackback below). But I still favor a largely public system…no radical, I….Report

  2. Kyle Cupp says:

    I’ve said it before, but I’d like to see smaller schools that are tied closely to their neighborhoods. I’d also like to see a real push for community involvement, including guest teachers in local industries and government. Schools should be more responsive to their communities needs and vice versa.

    I imagine that having smaller schools with community involvement and service would help build vibrant communities, but I also wonder if this model is likely to sell in those neighborhoods that haven’t communally bonded, where neighbors are strangers to one another. I’m not entirely skeptical. We’re social creatures, after all, and so we seek community.Report

  3. Michael Drew says:

    Thanks for this, E.D. I love the idea of much more responsive, smaller, more community-oriented public schools. The only problem I see here is that I think your vision of more, smaller schools being less costly to administrate is slightly over-optimistic. In fact, I have to say I think it is something of wishful thinking. The real story is closer to one in which large, impersonal schools exist at least in part because the economics of the endeavor dictate it. That is not an argument against your vision, because your ideas for reform of education are probably unimpeachable. Rather, it is an argument for radical openness in thought about what we can do to bring a quality education to all of our children who attend public schools, combined with a redoubled societal commitment to provide the means to create those institutions

    Alas, we are discussing our dreams. In the here and now, there are parents who despair for what is offered to their children by our society for their education. For that reason I think we have both (E.D. and I) agreed that in the short run it just doesn’t work to stand in the way of those who cry for help in finding the means to seek what they need for their children in the marketplace through vouchers. But it is simply a fact that those dollars, as much as we hope they provide the children who receive them the education the(ir parents)y require, are then not put toward the vision you outline. Only in a world where society perpetually fills its public educational coffers to overflowing can the hard fact of that tradeoff be ignored.

    Nevertheless, as I have said to Kyle elsewhere (and although E.D. and I hare a vision on this topic), I do want to again stress that the key thing about this post is the way in which it directly and in a positive way jumps into the real questions facing the vast majority of American children and families: how can the education they receive in their public schools be the best it can be, rather than regarding public education as an option of last resort where just a baseline standard education is the most that a rational family can expect, or backing into the discussion as an after-thought to a prior interest in a praticular (coercive, control-based) tool of reform.Report

  4. Paul Barnes says:

    One of the issues that hasn’t been brought up in these discussion on school vouchers is religion. To frame this discussion, I want to leave out any reference about evolution, mainly because I support a strong general science education (particularly for those who are academically gifted).

    One of the issues that have not been brought up is the issue of Catholic schools. As a Catholic convert, I am strongly interested in Catholic cultural and intellectual thought. Since I do not have any formal Catholic education, the possible structure and curriculum of ‘Catholic’ education intrigues me.

    For example, I would love to learn more extensively about Church history, philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, etc. and theology. However, none of these topics are really covered by public education (and I am not necessarily convinced that they should be).

    The essence of Catholic education appears to really test the bounds of what is considered ‘public’ education in America today (here in Ontario, we have a fully funded Catholic school system, but this poses unique challenges about the identity of Catholic education as well). On the other hand, I would argue that someone who receives a Catholic education is not lessened by its Catholic-ness than those who are publicly educated.

    This, I think, is where the market comes in. If we think of both children and parents as consumers of education (which seems to be considered a public good) and both as interested parties and stakeholders, I should think that the essences of the two educational philosophies could be maintained without compromising either.

    Might I suggest reading Richard Garnett’s work on this topic?

    • E.D. Kain in reply to Paul Barnes says:

      I went to Catholic school in Canada (for free as it was paid for by the government). I am not sure that we could, in the US, get away with a voucher program that subsidized religious education though I wouldn’t be opposed to that any more than I am to vouchers in general….Report

    • Trumwill in reply to Paul Barnes says:

      I’m not sure the degree to which economies of scale apply to school districts. Where I come from, the larger a school district the more they spent per pupil. It tracked far more closely to size than it did to affluence.

      But maybe my hometown is an outlier. Surely there’s some data out there that compares administrative costs of larger and smaller school districts.Report

  5. Michael Drew says:

    For your condiseration:

  6. Dan says:


    I’m not sure you appreciate the full ramifications of what you are proposing. First, as someone whose worked in the field I can tell you that football is actually the greatest bulwark against centralization. Cross town rivalries have preserved many a small school. Second, smaller neighborhood centered schools mean less options for students. Fewer AP courses, less special education, less vocational training, fewer electives (Music, languages, art, etc.), fewer athletics, and fewer extra-curricular activities. These are serious trade-offs. I’ve had students who would have dropped out if it wasn’t for the basketball team, art class, the Gay Straight Alliance, one on one attention from a special ed instructor, or an advanced course in finite math.Report

    • E.D. Kain in reply to Dan says:

      Dan, I understand this – but I’d offer up a thought on the matter.

      In Big Schools there are indeed more extracurricular options available but these are often stacked with the most talented of students. So there may be a great football team but of the six hundred kids at the school only a small percentage ever actually play ball. This crowds out students. Same with other programs. What we forget is that many kids get set aside in these big schools – so there is the spectacle of participation but it is really very limited. I think smaller schools would be better at involving their kids in more activities.

      Beyond that though I could see the possibility of after-school co-operatives forming between local corner schools. It wouldn’t be hard to set up a joint-football team or a multi-school theatre program.

      It would also be easier to integrate magnet-type schools into this system.Report

      • Dan in reply to E.D. Kain says:


        The high school that I taught at was slightly larger than your example, about 800 students. Half were involved in athletics, a large portion of that year round in different sports. We also had an active marching band and an orchestra. I could go on and on. Size is not an obstetrical but an asset in providing a broad educational experience.

        The obstacles to co-operatives are substantial. When does practice begin? (All schools have slightly different start and stop times) Who brings the students there? Who picks them up? Who pays for them? Who makes sure they are title IX compliant? I’ve never seen an after school co-operative work for students who were not college track, wealthy, with heavily involved parents. They are the exception not the rule.

        There’s a lot of great discussion about the American educational system here but I can’t help thinking, as a former educator, that much of it is far removed from the facts on the ground. The actual wants and needs of students, parents, teachers, and the wider community.Report

        • E.D. Kain in reply to Dan says:

          I think it takes some reimagining. True, for some students and programs big is better. But I would say that at the core education suffers – even if sports programs do not.

          You raise some good concerns about the co-operative model. I think it would be difficult in a lot of ways due to the infrastructure/transportation model we now have. That’s not to say that it couldn’t work with some significant overhauls – but this is, again, in many ways wishful thinking.Report

        • Kyle in reply to Dan says:

          Can I just say these are some very small schools you’re talking about. The high school I attended had 2,098 students. E.D.’s example of 600 was about the size of our freshman class. (To give you an example of attrition, my graduating class was in the low-mid 400’s)

          Dan’s comments point to a big reason why over charters and vouchers I prefer expansion of magnet programs at comprehensive high schools (and middle schools). I think they’re a fairly workable solution to providing more choice, flexibility, smaller learning communities, among other benefits while retaining the advantages of larger, comprehensive schools that Dan mentions.Report

          • E.D. Kain in reply to Kyle says:

            That’s a big school, Kyle. I think a couple hundred students would be plenty big. I suppose a reasonable corner school might be between 100 and 200 students. I’ll have to dig a little more to get those numbers closer to something workable.Report

  7. Dan says:


    I think you’re right on the core education front. In fact what you’re talking about reminds me a lot of a chain of charter schools around here. Rock solid on the three R’s. No art, no music, no languages, and no athletics.

    That’s attractive to a lot of parents and they do very well. They tend to hemorrhage students big time in 8th grade. Students who aren’t interested in the 3 R’s but in the value added aspect of education.

    These things might not be more important than core education but they are more important to students. It’s students who must be taught. If a student stays in school, works hard to keep his grades up, so he can be on the team that’s a win and that’s where a lot of students (and parents) are.Report

  8. Kyle says:


    There’s a lot here to unpack and think about. Obviously much of it is aspirational. I was really struck by this paragraph.

    Beyond this, though, I’d like to see programs set up that actually addressed community needs. For instance, in areas with large forests and forest-fire problems, including fire science options at the high school level makes a lot of sense. Focused trade school options are also vital, because as I’ve said countless times, not every kid is an academic and predisposed to liberal arts, college, and so forth. (One interesting thing to note about the “terrible” condition of schools, and especially graduation rates, is that they’re not really any worse than they were five decades ago. Only now there are fewer blue collar jobs available to non-school types. So we should cater our schools to creating skilled workers such as carpenters and masons as well as lawyers-and-doctors-to-be. And yes, there is real room for some private involvement here, in apprenticeship type programs….)

    Leveraging the assets of a community (environment/commercial) to bolster schools’ educational programs is something I’m partial to as an engagement tool.

    The common criticism I’ve heard of that approach is that it creates a system that is focused on the educational needs of the local business community and reduces social mobility somewhat, at the cost of the educational needs of the students and undermines an attempt to build a culture that pushes each student to develop to their own potential somewhat independent of the workforce needs of the local business community.

    I don’t know what you think of that, I think it’s about two parts conspiracy theory, one part marxist, with a dash of reasonable concern.

    However, I do think there is somewhat of a trade off between local bias a positive tool for educational advancement and engagement and local bias as an inhibitor of a more cosmopolitan awareness.

    I also think you’re right about the shift in employment options and availability – at the same time, I’d say the obsessive focus on sending kids to college has probably done more to increase the dropout rate rather than decrease it.

    However, it’s hard to gain traction for increasing trade school or votech options because people hear “minorities can’t go to college or leaving children behind,” rather than what you’re actually saying.

    Finally, I’d say the single largest obstacle to your smaller schools program isn’t funding but, in fact, the law. The system would be impossible to implement in the South and probably a concern in and around major cities elsewhere because smaller, more local schools would increase segregation and racial imbalance. One of the contributing factors to the location and size of schools today is to provide remedies for segregation or to avoid desegregation litigation.

    So even if there were legislative/community support for such a move, it’s unclear just how vulnerable your school regime would be to successful litigation that it was unconstitutional. Or more accurately, didn’t go far enough to successfully address unconstitutional segregation resulting in racially imbalanced schools.

    There’s a lot to still think about here, enjoyably thoughtful post as usual, E.D.Report

  9. Kevin Carson says:

    All excellent ideas. In the neighboring community of Fayetteville, Ark., the school board closed down several old neighborhood schools in order to build new ones in billionaire real estate developer Jim Lindsey’s newsubdivisions on the western edge of town.

    BTW, citywide school boards were originally justified by “progressives” a hundred years ago because they eliminated the overrepresentation of ordinary blue collar workers, tradesmen and small business people in the neighborhood school boards.Report

  10. As an ancillary to the issue of schools and community, this has been one of the great problems with forced integration i.e. ‘busing’ as we call it here in Louisville. Kids that are taken out of their neighborhoods and shipped across town, are placed into a situation where it is harder for their parents to be involved. And it’s the low-income/minority students who are hurt the most. A low-income parent who works a long day in a demanding job is often not in a position to travel across town after work for a PTA meeting or a parent-teacher conference. The only problem of course is if we do keep the kids in the communities they live in and even create more schools, then we may be compounding the problems we know exist when there is no economic diversity among student populations.

    As far as middle schools and high schools being less numerou, I guess it depends on the community. Here we have 88 elementary schools, 25 middle schools and 22 high schools (not counting Catholic schools which are a big part of our local educational offerings). I think the smaller number of locations at the higher levels is probably the ‘college prep’ part of their work. I helps prepare kids for larger schools and more diversity in the classroom. I know even with my high school of 1000 or so I was very overwhelmed my first couple of weeks on a college campus of 10,000 or more.Report