Monday, September 26, 2011

School Choice: Another One Bites the Dust

One of my favorite ewes prolapsed recently and my only recourse was to haul her to the stockyards at New Wilmington as a cull. To get her to the auction this morning, I drove past the recently closed East Lawrence Elementary School. This well built and recently renovated brick building was closed for declining enrollment. The First, Second, and Third Graders from the surrounding townships will now endure a 45+ minute bus ride to a bigger elementary school. Ironically, I also passed a one room private school that is bursting at the seams with happy kids.

I recently worked with a Borough that is trying to keep its small elementary schools open in spite of a district that also thinks bigger is better. In this case, the new policy would be to drive buses along the sidewalks to pick up small children and haul them out to the suburbs. Seems better to me to let the kids walk two blocks to a small school. If safety is an issue, a chaperon could be hired at less the cost of a CDL bus driver, and the chaperon could run on caffeine, rather than expensive diesel. A few communites are trying this "walking School Bus" approach.

In the course of my professional career, I worked with two school districts. Both wanted to manipulate demographic projections to help maximize construction projects that architecture firms were selling. The architects who consult for school districts make no money telling a school district their facilities are sufficient, so they have to sell consolidation; in spite of:

Evidence by the center for Rural Pennsylvania that consolidation yields no advantage of economy of scale.

Growing evidence that small schools are better learning environments

From my perspective as a community planner, I see closing a neighborhood or small rural school as an insult to the community and its taxpayers (both living and dead). Citizens were asked to pay for the construction and maintenance of a building which is now cast off like a dirty handkerchief. There is also often an undercurrent in these decisions that the town or rural area is not important enough to rate its own school, and the children have to be shipped out to somewhere worth spending their time. If not an insult, I must conclude that school board members lack the backbone to resist the sales talk of consolidators. Or do school boards lack the intelligence to figure out it might be more effective to shift grades and teachers instead of walking away from a significant physical investment?

I have watched a number of small town and rural schools close for the past 23 years. In most cases, the closing deals some hard blows to local economy and community identity. If any readers still have a small local school, treasure it. If you want to defend it run for the local school board. In Washington and Harrisburg, politicians harp a lot about school choice. How about the simple school choice to have a public school within reasonable proximity to the childrens' homes?

Friday, September 23, 2011

When Worlds Collide (or maybe not): Urbanism and Agrarianism

I have spent the past 23 years serving as a planning consultant to Pennsylvania's Counties, smaller cities, Townships and Boroughs. As a professional planner, I have tried to help communities manage changes such as economic dislocation, urban blight, conserving small town character, revitalizing downtowns, or dealing with the impacts of new highways and development.

When not planning, I have put my time and treasure into the farm where I was raised. In 2009, thanks to the Internet, I was able to move my professional office to the farm, so my days are divided between farming and homesteading activities and writing and research.

Over the past few years, I have seen my private agrarian interests and community planning interests merging. Small towns I work for have been looking at changing ordinances to allow chicken keeping. One of the brightest young urban planners I know is reading John Seymour, raising chickens, and heating with wood--in a city neighborhood. Another colleague is helping his daughter establish a CSA farm in a suburb. One of the bleakest cities in Western Pennsylvania is trying to establish an urban farm on old industrial land. Perhaps the greatest indication of a growing interest in the relationship between food and communities have come from the leading new urbanist Andres Duany. Duany has come out hard for agrarian urbanism, and recently published a book on the topic.

Against this backdrop of agrarian interest is the specter of economic collapse. Urbanists like Jim Kunstler see Peak Oil as ending the American way of life that most people think of as normal. The Neosurvivalism of folks like Jim Rawles has become mainstream. With due respect to the two Jims (whose books share space on my shelves) I see another way; rebuilding local communities. Resilient, self supporting communities represent the best way to avoid any crisis short of the Apocalypse.

84 percent of American live in Urban Areas. I am something of an oxymoron; an urban planner who studies that 84 percent but who likes and actually knows how to milk a goat, skin a muskrat, castrate a bull calf, and run a tractor. With regards to agrarianism and urbanism, I believe I might have something to add to the conversation.