Neighborhood schools provide intangible benefits beyond the education of our young ones. Neighborhood schools are one of the essential elements to maintaining healthy and vibrant cities and towns and their value stretches well beyond the traditional economic measures of dollars and cents. Situated amongst residential homes, neighborhood schools bring a vibrancy that can never be matched by schools located on the periphery of a community. Therefore, when a neighborhood school is closed for any reason and for any length of time, it has dramatic impacts not only on the students and parents, but also on an entire community.
In Helena, Montana where I live, neighborhood schools along with boulevard sidewalks, mature trees and houses with front porches create an unmatched vibrancy in residential areas that is unmatched. In many cases, the neighborhood schools define the old neighborhoods in Helena. Hawthorne Elementary School in the Mansion District and Central Elementary School in the South Central neighborhoods act as community connectors and are deeply regarded by residents.
Families are drawn to these neighborhoods because they are fantastic places to live and raise children. Their kids can safely walk and bike to school and play in neighborhood parks. These qualities allow parents time to volunteer in classrooms and after school functions. These neighborhoods are not populated exclusively by young families but include many couples without children, empty nesters and retired seniors, which create diverse neighborhood from an age and socio-economic standpoint, which are the building blocks for vibrant, successful communities.
From a personal perspective, I can attest to the importance of neighborhood schools. When asked what I like about living in the “South Central” neighborhood of Helena, I always identify three things: my kids can walk to all three schools they will attend (elementary, middle and high school); my wife and I can walk to almost every retail and personal service we need and our recreational opportunities are either an easy walk or short drive away. We are not alone; many of the other families who choose to live within the South Central area and other “traditional” neighborhoods do so for the same reasons.
Unfortunately, neighborhood schools throughout the country are threatened by many factors like years of neglect, deferred maintenance, poor community development and planning decisions and Helena, Montana is no different. In late 2012, as part of a school planning process, the Helena School Board proposed the idea of closing several neighborhood elementary schools and sending the students to the other schools in the district as a cost savings measure. Unfortunately, our neighborhood elementary school, Central, was one of those proposed for closure. Not surprisingly, there was an incredible outpouring of support to keep Central Elementary and the other neighborhood schools open and operating. This support wasn’t just from the affected parents, but from their friends and neighbors and from parents of schools not impacted by the proposal. That outpouring of support is a testament of just how important institutions such as neighborhood schools are to those of us living in the urban West. Fortunately, this overwhelming support convinced the Helena School Board to scrap the proposed closures and to keep all the neighborhood schools operating.
While this may sound like a fairy tale ending challenges remain, particularly for our neighborhood school, Central. Just last week, the School Board closed Central Elementary due to structural concerns related to the buildings ability to withstand an earthquake. These concerns were identified during a recent engineering assessment. All of our children are now being transferred to other schools for the remainder of the school year.
Again as a testament to how important this school is to the parents and the neighborhood, 100 plus people filled an auditorium on a cold, blustery Monday night to hear about the situation from the School District superintendent and to ask questions. While the welfare and safety of the children was foremost in the minds of everyone there, repairing and reopening Central Elementary was on everyone lips.