I'm trying to write a haiku to sum up the last week or so and words fail me. First with the RSV and the terrifying prospect of Ike-a-saurus hospitalized, or even hospitalized out of state. And now this: a proposal to close down the wee one's school.
I realize that comparing the closure of a school to the delicate health of a two-year-old seems like apples and oranges, but it's big jarring news in a household that has become used to big jarring news. (Ike, by the way, is finally doing much better, though still on oxygen off and on and still struggling to open up that area of atelectasis in his lung – he's better, though, and for that we are grateful!).
We've searched for years to find the right school for the wee one. I've camped out to secure him a place in a new school, only to have the transfer denied because the school is full. I've researched, filled out forms, agonized over the choices – only to have the transfer denied again because the school is full. Then, a few weeks into the school year this year we got a letter. The wee one was in! IF we were willing to switch schools mid-semester. And as difficult as it was to decide, we went for it, knowing that the new school was smaller, offered exciting learning opportunities, was beloved by friends, and would be a better overall community fit for our family.
So we did it. The wee one finally got in, paving the way for his little sister and brother. And he loves it. I love it. Today they began learning Shakespeare. This weekend we will furiously finish a bristle bot-inspired science project. He learns spanish, plays the recorder, has recess (which is not a given for third graders anymore), and even with all of these "extras" the school does fine on the irritating, mandated testing. Better than fine, the school rates Exemplary. It is a congregation point after classes for kids and parents to play and chat. It's where the neighborhood votes. It's diverse and respectful. It's where we would buy a house if we could figure out how to fit five people in a 1960s-era 1500-square foot house. (We're trying, believe me.)
And now, our new school, a school that has been an Austin institution since 1950, is being threatened with closure. And it's not just our school, it's many other elementary schools, too. All small community schools, many of them also rated exemplary by the state.
Money, of course. The district is in a hole. A deep, deep hole. And despite that lack of money, they have scraped the barrel to pay quite a sum to an outside consulting firm, and to a new superintendent – who see only negative dollar signs instead of thriving schools.
But the thing is, our school isn't full of negative dollar signs. Despite woh-woh head-shaking from the school district based on faulty numbers gleaned from a decade old census, the neighborhood is bursting with kiddos (as is evident by our transfer requests being denied initially). Not to mention, the city of Austin is falling all over itself to attract more people – families especially – to live in these urban neighborhoods. One of the ways they attract families is to do what? Fawn over the small, community-driven exemplary neighborhood schools. And yet, the school district says this area of the city is in decline. That the building is old and needs repairs (are they forgetting the bond election a few years ago that paid for an overhaul of much of the school?).
I know these are probably snooze-worthy details making for an epic blog post, but I'm reaching out, scrabbling for anything that can help me understand what is going on here. The state wants successful schools. The city wants successful schools. The school district wants… to close successful schools? It just doesn't make sense.
I know they are coming at this purely from a numbers standpoint, but even that has weird explanations. Close the school, but don't sell it. Don't knock it down and build a bigger school to house all the students from the four schools in the immediate area facing closure. No. Just empty it. Let it sit there. "Mothball" it. And then, in five years, when the other schools – where they want to move the population of our school and the other potential closures – are bursting at the seams, what will they do? Re-open the mothballed schools? Pay bags of cash to update them and clean them up? Does that save money?
Times are tough. We all know that. I feel like my family has been the friggin' poster family for "Times are Tough." It wasn't that long ago that Tough Times had us buying our groceries with a list of approved WIC items and donations from our friends. There were medical bills. A fragile child requiring 24/7 care and Cobra insurance that, while costing thousands of dollars a month, would not pay for said care. There was searching and searching and searching for work. And then figuring out HOW to work when the baby needed the care we couldn't get nursing for. Then, things got a little better. The Medicaid waiver was approved. We got home nursing. Work surfaced. We found a routine. We could buy our own groceries again.
So, yes, I understand negative dollar signs. I understand them more than I ever want to.
And do you know what happened during our negative dollar sign days? Our community stepped forward and saved us. Our community came together, rallied, bolstered us, held us in its embrace.
Now it is our turn to save our community. And we're trying.
We're trying really hard.
These schools really are the heart of their neighborhoods. The heart of the community. We breathe life into them just as they breathe life into us.
And we embrace them. We will not let them go.