I may be heading to some kind of Pedestrian Hell: I have enrolled my daughter, a first-grader-to-be, in a charter school.
Actually, The Watershed School, which opens this fall, has a component that should make pedestrian-types long to send their kids there: it focuses on “place-based” education, in which students focus on their local communities to start with, then move outward. That is, history, literature, civics, and the sciences will be taught with a Fairbanks focus, and after that grounding they will include studies of other places. With the school only four or five blocks from the Chena River, the students will get to study a lot of river ecology. They’ll get to participate in their school’s own landscaping and the upkeep of the land, including the maintenance of a school garden. While the school will be open on the School District’s calendar, the day-to-day schedule will be structured around local events like the Yukon Quest or the Festival of Native Arts. Students will spend a great deal of time outdoors, and they’ll meet more than twice the School District’s physical education requirement.
As someone who considers local community participation to be one of the highest goods, I’m really excited about the possibilities of The Watershed School. (And, as a parent of a girl who often doesn’t like changes in routine, I’m a little surprised that my daughter is excited about it, too.) However…
Some readers may remember my concern, about a year ago, over another charter school, Chinook: that the location was ugly and distant, and that (in part because of the distance) the student body was selected for privilege and homogeneity.
The Watershed School suffers some of the same problems. It will be located off Dale Road, near the airport. While not hideous the way Chinook’s bleak, industrial surroundings are, it seems neither surrounded by the idyllic wilderness nor in the thick of civilization. Since it’s not a neighborhood school, there is no school bus to take kids there — but, worse than that, there is effectively no public bus, either. While the Yellow Line goes within a few blocks, the schedules of the bus and the school are incompatible. Thus it’s a school for children whose parents have the money and the time to drive them to and from school.
They will not provide the School District’s hot lunches, so parents will have to pack lunches for their children. For our family, providing nutritious lunches is no problem. However, this puts a serious hardship on the nearly 30 percent of students in the school district who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches and breakfasts. (Estimate based on 2006-07 data from the Common Core of Data at the National Center for Educational Statistics.) So our daughter will not be rubbing elbows on a daily basis with Fairbanks’s less fortunate, as she does at her neighborhood kindergarten.
My wife asked — maybe as a devil’s advocate — “Why is it important that our daughter go to school with poor people?” Of course, it isn’t, in itself. I’m not striving for some environment that represents all facets of our population equally; that’s nothing more than tokenism. However, I feel a little guilty about taking advantage of a supposedly public service that in fact (though not by intent) discriminates against an already disadvantaged group.
Perhaps I should be happy because it’s more likely my daughter will make good friends from among the students of Watershed. Since the families whose children go there all share an ideological bent — we think place-based education is a good thing — our children will probably have more in common. Of course, there’s the sinister twist to that, as well: in time, she may find herself less able to make friends with (or simply interact with) people who are different from her. I myself went to an alternative high school, founded by hippies and attended by freaks and nerds of various stripes. While I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world, I may have suffered in my ability to get along and make friends with most people.
Of course, the perfect solution for our family would be a place-based school in our neighborhood (within walking distance) and serving the neighborhood families equally. But that’s not what we’re offered. It’s fine to be an idealist, but you’re sometimes given competing ideals to choose from. This is the best path we can walk — or drive — for now.