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28 March 2007

Schools, Communities, or Both?

I don't live in Fayetteville, but last week I noticed that the Fayetteville Observer ran several stories, including this one, about a local high school that is among 18 around the state which might be closed down due to poor achievement. Ten years ago a lawsuit was filed to address the differences in funding between low-wealth area schools wealthy-area schools. In the process, a judge decided that aside from funding, the sorriest schools, in terms of test scores, needed to address the job the teachers and principals were doing. His threat to close these schools has apparently brought dividends at some of them, including E.E. Smith in Fayetteville, which has improved its scores in a fairly rapid manner. The part of the story that strikes me the most, and presents the most nettlesome issue facing any school that struggles, is this:

On the other hand, it’s hard to overlook the fact that the 18 schools on Manning’s list are trying to educate students who are largely poor and black.

E.E. Smith High School is a prime example. At E.E. Smith, 86 percent of students are black, and 55 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Little has changed in that regard over the years.

E.E. Smith has been a school for black students since the day it was founded in 1927. Alumni are immensely proud of that fact. When E.E. Miller ruled the school with an iron fist in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, they say, students excelled and discipline problems were minimal.

Parents in the middle-class neighborhoods surrounding the school watched out for each others’ children. If someone was seen skipping school, that student’s parents were almost sure to get a call.

But somewhere along the line, things changed. As Broadell and the other black neighborhoods began to age, transient residents moved in.

Over time, the older alumni say, E.E. Smith lost its sense of community.

Now, teachers and schools are (in)famous for laying blame at the feet of parents (or lack thereof), but even when a teacher first accepts full responsibility for test scores and achievement, there is no way around it: home life and community life matter.

So what to do in a case where the community surrounding a school has just, for lack of a more artful term, turned to crap? Sadly, closing some schools in order to get the kids into better ones may be necessary in certain situations.

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