Back-to-school time has become a time of renewal for many aspects of life, and we think it’s a good time for individuals and communities to review civic life, take stock of real and figurative assets and liabilities, and make adjustments where warranted—adjustments that might or might not directly relate to schools and education. It’s that time when the often looser summer schedule gives way to the often-tighter fall-winter-spring schedule. And maybe we wish that summer schedule could last just a little bit longer.
For the moment, though, let’s look directly at schools, and what we might do with a "back-to-school" mindset or opportunity.
Most schools were built (and rebuilt) in residential areas, to be, by default, a key center of their neighborhoods’ civic lives, as the neighborhoods’ children and teachers pursue the full-time job of education. Older ones were built to serve their specific neighborhoods; newer ones were often built by people who long for neighborhood schools.
Among blocks and blocks of houses, small apartment buildings and small commercial buildings, virtually all with entrances close to the street and on relatively-small lots, the school building is mammoth, insulated by huge playgrounds and parking lots. Many host more separate visitors in a single day (five days a week, 36 weeks a year, give or take a few) than the average house hosts in a lifetime.
Is it any wonder that, often times, it seems the school just doesn’t fit in? To put it mildly, the school stands out, and it’s totally understandable if the folks in the comparatively-tiny houses are a bit intimidated. They might not realize that the folks in the school have every reason to be intimidated by the folks in the houses...the people whose hearts, souls, lives and money are invested in the neighborhood, but who might not have any understanding of the complexities of running a modern-day school.
All that said, the formula for determining how well a school gets along in its neighborhood is pretty simple: Think of it as the sum total of the encounters between individuals.
The neighborhood person who volunteers to teach or read an hour a week at the local school greets the greeters, smiles and nods at dozens of students in the hallway, relates closely to 20 or 30 or more for an hour, accepts the thanks of a grateful teacher (and, often, of the students directly), then heads for the exit with more smiles and nods and a "see-you-next-week" for the greeters, creates hundreds of positive encounters in a single hour. We’ll let you use your imaginations to come up with ways that people in and around a school can create negative encounters. Everyone in or near a school—neighbors, business people, students, school staff—is likely to create school-to-neighbor encounters, and has a lot to say about whether those encounters are positive or negative.
If your encounters, or those you hear the most about, tend to be negative, you have the power to do something to tip the balance in the other direction. This is the perfect time of year to go "back to school" and create some positive encounters. Attend a football game and watch how the coaches and officials relate to the players and fans. And, if you can do so truthfully (and you probably can), tell one or two of them that you appreciate what they’re doing for the kids. Maybe a coach or official had a big influence in your life. If the people at the school you visit are not swamped at the moment, they’ll probably be interested in hearing your story. Who wouldn’t want to hear about the most influential people in their chosen field? Who wouldn’t long to be that coach or official that people talk about decades later?
For you, maybe going "back to school" is a literal thing, and you want to learn specific skills or knowledge. Community education is there for you. When you gain the knowledge you’re seeking (plus a whole lot more, probably), the world becomes a better place.
Maybe you have your hands full getting your youngsters to and from school and associated activities. Try to remember that every encounter is an opportunity to influence that school-community relationship.
It might seem easier for neighborhood people to just quietly tolerate the school; it might seem easier for the school person to enter and leave the neighborhood with (figurative) blinders on. But it’s not that hard to stop and pick up some litter that you’re pretty sure one of your people dropped, or to stop and help a kid who dropped his or her books on the sidewalk.
And who knows? You just might meet a new friend in one of those encounters.