Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

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.


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Tonight (Monday, April 7), the Fairbanks City Council will have a public hearing on the Vision Fairbanks plan for downtown’s revitalization. Resolution No. 4318 is not binding, but it is an important show of support that will influence the actions of the Borough Assembly. Below is my prepared testimony.


Good City Council Members,

My wife and I have two daughters, one a toddler and one who’s not quite five. I think a lot about their future.

Some time in the next few years, they’ll be old enough to leave the house by themselves: to go on errands or social trips without their parents’ company. I look forward to that — and not just because it frees up my time, but because it expands their independence and enriches their chances for growth.

Good cities meet many of young people’s needs:

  • They need to hone their social skills and their awareness of cultural differences. The best way for them to do that is to come into frequent contact with many people of widely varied backgrounds.
  • They need to learn money management. To that end, they need a variety of places where they can spend their money, sometimes wisely and sometimes poorly, so they can learn from their successes and their mistakes.
  • They need social lives that are not dependent on their parents’ ability to ferry them from one location to another. For this they need public spaces and other neutral meeting grounds in easy reach.
  • They need to contribute meaningfully to the life of the family. This may mean doing more of their own errands, or it may mean shopping for groceries, picking up books from the library, making a bank deposit, paying a bill to the city clerk, or bringing home some Thai food for dinner.

Young people need a host of chances for growth into adults — chances that are not offered in school and that certainly aren’t available by staying at home. They need participation in the real world — and they need it without constantly leaning on adults.

Our city planning to date has largely denied them these chances. While shops, cafés, theaters, parks, government offices, grocery stores, Thai restaurants, and areas of cultural diversity all exist within the Borough, there is no place where they all exist together. There is no one-stop destination where a young person (or any person) may come — by foot, by bike, by bus, or by taxi — to meet this variety of life’s needs. So, because they can’t drive, those under sixteen are necessarily cut off from the richness of civic life and the adult world.

I have already e-mailed you with my written testimony about the “Fairbanks Citizenship Tax“: the cost of automobile ownership, which every adult here must pay to participate in civic life. For most of the young, there is no tax, but an outright condemnation, a banishment from the public sphere. We take away their civic life and instead give them the suburban curse: solitude, parental dependence, increased television viewing, higher rates of obesity, and a greater likelihood of drug abuse.

I’m not suggesting you endorse Vision Fairbanks so that we can turn downtown into a children’s playground. There are ample other reasons to support it, just for adult interests. But I am suggesting that how we plan our city has major repercussions on a cherished part of our community — one with the least privileges and the most to learn.

Vision Fairbanks is a plan for a true city center: walkable, attractive, human-scaled, pedestrian-friendly, and rich with a variety of meaningful destinations. It will offer greater access to civic life and our cultural wealth to everyone — including the least privileged among us, who need their community’s teaching the most.

Please lend your support to this important plan by voting “Yes” on Resolution No. 4318.

Thank you for your time.

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Chinook Charter School, in the middle of nowhere

Edited 2 April 2008

My wife and I have been confronted with a choice — one that is available mostly to those in our privileged social condition, but a difficult one: where should we send our children to school?

Just a few years ago, we wouldn’t have had this difficulty. We’d have sent the kids to whatever the local school was. The alternative would have been (and still is) to homeschool them and cobble together an education by ourselves. This option has a lot going for it that I won’t get into here, and we used to feel sure that homeschooling would be the option for us.

But our older daughter, now approaching the age when children start kindergarten, is a tremendously social person. She loves to spend time with other kids, and I think she thrives more when she has frequent contact with lots of them. So we’re trying to find the right course to take for her: something that does not lock her into a world of standardized tests and a passive-learner mentality, yet does allow her regular social contact.

We see three options:

  • Send her to Denali Elementary School, which is our local school, about ten minutes’ walk away.
  • Send her to Barnette Magnet School, about fifteen minutes’ walk away, in the afternoon for elective, multi-age “exploration” classes in science, art, social studies, languages, mathematics, and technology. In the mornings and evenings, we would work on the core skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic — plus whatever else we felt like. Alternately, we could send her in the morning for the core subjects and have the afternoons free.
  • Send her to Chinook Charter School, about five minutes’ drive away, where they run a Montessori-style program for K-8 kids.

Until recently, I felt sure we would never send our kids to Denali. It has to do with my distaste for compulsory schooling; Denali would undoubtedly be as bad as any other elementary school about squashing my children’s interest in learning. (I’m saying this not to invite debate over the merits of the school system, but to give you an idea why I am in a dilemma.)

My wife, our older daughter, and I went to tour Chinook in the past week. Classes were opened up for visiting families to see what kind of education went on: we could walk from room to room, watch the class activities, and look at the educational materials (books and “toys”). My complete appraisal isn’t germane here, but I’ll say: there were things I liked and things I disliked, though it’s hard to put my finger on anything bad.

With one exception: the location. Chinook Charter School is in the middle of nowhere — an industrial area of Fairbanks that not only is outside my neighborhood, but is outside any neighborhood. If you’d been given directions there and were walking, you’d turn around before you saw it, sure that only warehouses and prisons awaited you. The nearest bus line passes two-thirds of a mile to the northeast and would require the rider to walk across an expressway to get to school. There is nothing for any pedestrian out here; the school is an island in a sea of roads, cars, and heavy industry.

This bothers me for a few reasons. (They are intertwined, and others might parse them differently.) The first is that our daughters would be entirely dependent on us for their transportation to and from school, five days a week, nine months of the year. While the parent volunteer who showed us around said that some of the kids ride their bikes to school, I’m sure that they don’t do it year-round, not with our climate. Let my girls walk ten minutes to school at forty below? Sure. Let them bike over two miles on icy streets, with no bike trails, and crossing the Mitchell Expressway? Nuh-unh, no way.

Where could they go after school, other than where we took them? I remember biking to and from school in the fifth grade. Often I’d stop at a convenience store to buy Mad magazine or play video games, or I’d pop into the video store for a movie, or occasionally I’d see a friend whose house was on my way home. None of that could have happened if my parents had been driving me to and from school each day. Such a distant location stunts children’s independence.

The second reason is that it normalizes environmental ugliness. While the inside of the school is attractive (and eerily tidy), the property’s surroundings teach children that it is only the building in isolation that matters, while surroundings are just obstacles on the path — disregarded at best, resented at worst, but never experienced and enjoyed.

Third, it reinforces the lesson — already taught by our inadequate city planning — that it’s normal for the most worthwhile destinations to be far away from anything else. This discourages children from making do with neighborhood resources, or even possibly creating neighborhood resources. It normalizes distance and disconnection.

Fourth, it gives children the chance — the inevitability, actually — of making friends from all over the Borough, at the expense of time to make friends who live nearby. Of course, the more gregarious children may seek out nearby peers in their non-school hours. But, by and large, they won’t, not in the same number as if they had gone to their local school and rubbed elbows with their neighbors. This impoverishes their social lives, condemns their parents to a life of chauffeuring to events with friends, and hampers their social independence.

Last, the student population is selected by the difficulty of access: only those children can attend whose parents (1) can afford to buy and maintain a car, and (2) have the leisure to drive the little ones to and from school every day. The location selects against poor and working-class families with neither the money nor the free time to ferry their kids around, and for middle- and upper-class families. The result of this is a socio-economic heterogeneity homogeneity that delays children’s learning how to deal with — even be friends with — people different from themselves. It makes school not a social leveler, but a stratifier.

I have to grant that Barnette, while downtown, has some of these faults. A magnet school by definition attracts children from all over town — and the more time my daughters spend making friends with kids in Spinach Creek or Goldstream, the less time they’ll have to make friends with those only a few minutes’ walk from our house. And those kids will very likely be from privileged families with the money and free time to make schooling outside their neighborhood possible.

Yet I suspect that homeschooling, with some accommodation for my girls’ need for regular society, will offer them the best education. It’s even possible that the Montessori-style program offered at Chinook — which has a lot to recommend it — would be best. But if you believe in the importance of locality, of neighborhoods, of school as a social leveler, and of children’s independence, what can you do?

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