Neighborhood Schools, Local Business

Over at The League, the (extra)ordinary Mr. Kain has a splendid piece on “the concept of the school itself as an essential part of one’s community.” It is, rest assured, well worth the read. (At Front Porch Republic, Professor Fox offered, a couple of months ago, the very interesting “A Partially Localist Defense of Public Education”, wherein, discussing Mike Huckabee and school consolidation, he notes very reasonable, troublesome reasons to support consolidation; that’s neither here nor there (Well, not here, but maybe there!), but the posting is worth your time, too.) My favorite passage from E.D.:

I’d like to see, quite literally, corner schools – kind of like the days of “corner stores” which have now all vanished in the face of big grocery chains and super Wal*Marts. Because corner schools would be personable. They’d be right there in your neighborhood. Elementary schools tend to be closer to this model. For some reason we go from a dozen or so elementary schools in a mid-size town to one or two high schools. It doesn’t make sense. And if you’re worried about sports, there’s really no reason why schools couldn’t team up to create a good football team. But even better than that, you’d have lots more sports teams and lots more kids would get a chance to play – even if the teams themselves weren’t quite as star-studded, and the games were not quite as good. Still, it would level the playing field, so to speak. And that’s a good thing.

One thing upon which E.D. touches not (though one can infer it, perhaps, from this earlier line: “Schools should be more responsive to their communities needs and vice versa.”) is the particular connectivity between the school and the local business community. Before the 1974-75 academic year, students at North Judson-San Pierre High School (a product of the dreaded mid-century consolidation movement: San Pierre could hardly support a high school, by the advanced standards of the education technocrats) attended classes, concerts, and basketball games in the middle of town, at the corner of Keller Ave. and Central Ave, just a block from Lane St., our main drag. (The football team played on a field now replaced by residential blocks some number of streets to the west; the baseball team, on the same large town block, on WPA-built Norwayne Field.)

My father, oftenly enough, has spoken of lunch hours spent at Pell’s Sweet Shop, the local diner at Lane St. and Adair St. (See map linked to above.), to which he and friends would race to save a booth and where they’d play Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein”, Grand Funk Railroad’s “Flight of the Phoenix”, and Deep Purple’s classic “Smoke on the Water” on the jukebox, all three for a quarter. Old Man Pellegrini worked the fryer, calling out “French-a-fry, French-a-fry!” in broken English between quarrelsome verbal bouts with his wife. In the mid-Seventies, in time for my father’s class to be the first to graduate, the school board replaced this downtown facility with a presumably state–of–the–art (Read: Barns–with–lean-tos–looking bit of totalitarian architecture; insufficiently fenestrated, natch!) building on the southwestern edge of town, with cornfields on two sides!

The Keller Avenue building then housed middle school students — to wit, continued to operate, but not with students likely to be trusted to venture forth from an open campus for lunch —, whilst the secondary-education students had no choice but to lunch daily on remarkably cardboard-esque mass-produced cafeteria food — served by ladies kindly enough, but many packs of Virginia Slims beyond their prime, with all the enthusiasm of a reluctant mortician into whose hands the family business fell —, imprisoned (a verb all too regrettably à propos of the school’s æsthetic character) by the closed-campus restrictions I assume were imposed de jure (By my time in high school, anyway, the school compelled students to remain on the premises at lunch, and otherwise, without a legitimate excuse.), and, certainly, were discouraged, de facto, from enjoying lunch served by a local restaurateur by the reliance upon an automobile (paired with a relatively short lunch hour) that this anti-communitarian location required of students. The students lost “choice”; the diners and restaurants, customers.

Troublingly enough, returning our schools to neighborhoods — or, in smaller towns, nearer our business districts — is, presently, rather impractical. Doubtless, the school district here could not at all easily build new schools in downtown North Judson, and if they could, likely would construct buildings so atrocious that one easily would mistake them for anything but. (See here about architectural ineptitude in North Judson.) This is saddening. Notwithstanding the very real objections found in Prof. Fox’s disquisition, E.D’s case is quite compelling; what I’ve discussed hereabove only strengthens it. Methinks an incredibly sensible, could-be-practical way to help to revive our local economies without furthering the often onerous regulations employed — sensibly enough — to level the playing field for local businesses is to bring our schools back. As Mr. Kain properly proclaims, the school is an essential part of the community, and as Mr. Kunstler, that pugnacious prognosticator of Peak Oil and maligner of modern massacres of the public realm, echoing Mr. Wendell Berry of Kentucky, asserted, in The Geography of Nowhere, “Community is Economy.”

Post-script: I’d certainly love to see a return of Catholic education, even if only at the elementary (and middle-school) level, as was the case in the past, to North Judson. Paul Barnes, commenting on E.D’s piece, broaches this topic.

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4 Responses

  1. Excellent piece, Nathan. I’ve attend lots of sorts of schools. I was home-schooled; I attended Catholic school; for a while I was at a lovely Montessori school which I cannot praise highly enough (talk about “corner school” it was in a (big) house down the street) and I’ve done the public school thing at various levels here and in Canada. The bigger the school got, the less of an education myself and my fellow students received.

    Indeed, the Montessori school – not necessarily due to its methodology – seemed by far the best. It was small. You mingled with many grade-levels. You knew everyone there. There is much to be said for smallness. It is harder to blend in, to bully, to operate as an individual. It is easier to be part of a learning whole.

    Cheers!

  2. Nathan,
    Nice post. You do a good job evoking small town Indiana of the 70’s. As someone who is wedged between your Father’s and your generations, I can relate to it firsthand. My own small town in Western N.Y., Batavia, saw the same consolidations at the elementary school level, both public and private. When I started Kindergarten in 73 our town of 16,000 supported 3 public elementary schools (K-6), and 4 Catholic K-8. They are now down to 2 public and one Catholic school. While some of the decline is demographic, much of it is the mistaken belief that the quality of the education is based the modernity of the building, and amenities. There is an unspoken argument that the quality is improved if the educational experience can be managed, and made more “efficient”. The result is the Industrialization of local education, which has done much to destroy the roots of community.

    Why I remember the time we went over to Shelbyville during the war, I wore an onion on my belt….which was the style at the time…you couldnt get those white ones, you could only get those big yellow ones……………..

    Sorry about that. I was slippin’ into Grandpa mode again.

  3. Tom,

    Thanks for visiting and for sharing your own experiences.

    And one never, ever needs to apologize to me for slipping into Grandpa mode.

  4. […] COUNTRY, INDIANA — Filed under “Shameless Self-Promotion”, I direct you to my most recent post at NCM, titled as this one is, about the necessary interconnectivity between high schools and local […]

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