On a sunny, breezy afternoon at the neighborhood playground, my small son walked over to me, dejected, and expressed his sadness that he could not play with anyone because he didn't know their names. He is usually very good about playing with new kids, but on this day it was too much for him to try to befriend children that he would never meet again. Meeting new people is taxing but the only respite is moving into a comfortable relationship after multiple meetings-yet, for my son, that never happens.
My son goes to a Catholic school a few miles away from our home. With the Jefferson Parish and New Orleans schools a mess of failures, his early education could not be chanced. This is the case for all too many families, as New Orleans has the highest percentage of students in private schools in the U.S.; however, the relocation of students from their neighborhood schools isn't due to the mass move to private schools. The growth of the charter management organizations in New Orleans as well as the reinstatement of the Dandridge Order in Jefferson parish meant the dissolution of the neighborhood school in the New Orleans metro area.
In New Orleans there is no unified district in place. The Orleans Parish School Board manages only a small portion of the highest performing schools in the city; the rest are charter run. The majority of the charters, sprinkled around the city, are open enrollment, which means that any child in the parish can attend any school. The purpose of this is to allow children the opportunities to attend the best schools even if the best schools aren't nearby.
In Jefferson parish the commute exists for a different reason: The Dandridge order. As district leaders noticed the racial imbalance in the schools, they decided to forcefully intergrate them. For students this means that if you live in a primarily white neighborhood, you may not attend your neighborhood school because there's already too many white people so you will be bused to another school which needs more white diversity. To some, this sounded like a reasonable solution but in reality it began to destroy the neighborhood schools.
The playground where I bring my son is next to an elementary and middle school that is less than a mile from where we live- but if he went to a Jefferson parish school he would actually go to a school about three miles away. I began to think of how this impacted his ability to make and maintain friends with children he doesn't go to school with.
My wheels began to turn as I considered the bigger picture. How does this school commute affect the social development of children? How does it affect the social development of my high school students? It seemed quite obvious. Children have to work harder to develop relationships that may not last because of the distance.
Anyone who has maintained a long distance friendship or relationship can attest that it can be difficult to stay connected when you are living two different lives. You tell stories that involve different groups of friends; you recount mundane details of day to day life because the other person isn't witness or participant to them; conversations may drag out of desperation for something to talk about. For adults, we may prune away these relationships but for children these social connections are crucial to their growth.
Children spend anywhere from nine to ten hours a day at school (not accounting for after school activities) so they develop their strongest bonds with the children that they are with the most. Yet, they go home and may have friendships with the children in their neighborhood who do not attend the same school. With my high schoolers, this often causes problems. The neighborhood friends see the closeness to school friends as disloyal and rifts occur. It is especially significant for Freshman. Which friend wins out? How do children cope with these rifts? Can they learn to overcome them? It seems as though students frequently choose to cut ties with the neighborhood friends rather than overcome the conflict. Is this move affecting their conflict resolution? Does this commute affect teens need for social interaction via their phones?
In the younger children, are school friendships seen as valuable? If children are not interacting with their classmates outside of school, is there any value in the classroom interactions and if not, do children care less about their conflicts and relationships with their classmates?
Another dimension to this issue is the burden placed on parents in an attempt to maintain out of school relationships. Phone calls, text messages, scheduling outings and even driving across town now become a part of social development. Parents are also responsible for developing relationships with each other in order to do these things. We take on an extra responsibility to get to know people who are not around us; we don't shop at the same grocery stores or attend the same churches or play at the same playground-so parental socialization becomes another task all of its own. Do our children get appropriate socialization when it is the parent's responsibility to make it happen?
There is little discussion or information about this impact on children. The U.S. has been on a mad dash to charter and privatize the school entity without regard for the impact. Education reform has become a beast which feeds on children instead of the superhero who was supposed to save them. The social impact may be small; children will make friends one way or another-but it is worth questioning all of the ways that the destruction of neighborhood schools is adversely affecting children's lifelong success.