The Medford School Board and entire community face a difficult and complex decision concerning the fates of Roosevelt and Jackson elementary schools. As Medford Councilman John Statler observed at the most recent board meeting, the final decision and the transparency of the process by which it is arrived at will go a long way towards rebuilding, or eroding, public trust and willingness to support future requests on behalf of our schools.
Superintendent Phil Long is to be commended for his oft-repeated insistence that decisions will be made in light of the best interest of our children, and he acted responsibly in closing schools when safety concerns were raised last spring. So, too, the School Board acted well in convening a task force of well-respected and well-intentioned community members to revisit bond priorities in light of the prospect of escalating costs associated with the two schools. The four options proposed by the task force, however, reveal a lack of historical, pedagogical and developmental perspectives that should be factored into any final decision.
As a parent and educator, I urge the School Board and task force to consider the following points in developing new options that better meet the needs of students:
- Students fare better in smaller schools, not larger ones. Any option that does not include rebuilding Jackson and Roosevelt will necessarily result in larger enrollments for neighboring schools that will be expected to absorb the dislocated students. The trend starting in the 1950s towards consolidating small schools into larger comprehensive buildings has since been discredited. As the recent partnership of the Medford schools with the Oregon Small Schools Initiative acknowledges, smaller schools tend to offer better learning environments and give students more opportunity to become connected to teachers, staff and to one another.
- K-8 schools aren't necessarily best for students. Research is decidedly mixed on the effectiveness of K-8 schools. What is clear is that children in the elementary and middle-school grades have a different set of physical, social-emotional and intellectual needs. Whatever the grade-level configuration of schools, factors critical in promoting the academic and behavioral success of early adolescents include team and interdisciplinary teaching, the strength of relationships between students and adults and parental involvement (factors enhanced where schools are small and neighborhood in character).
- Roosevelt and Jackson Elementary Schools are success stories that should be emulated, not eliminated. Both schools serve a high percentage of Medford's neediest students while consistently meeting academic targets. Additionally, Jackson has, in recent years, achieved notable reading gains in grades K-3, boasts a model bilingual program and houses health and social services vital to the surrounding neighborhood. As a non-busing school, Roosevelt, meanwhile, embodies the finest tradition of the neighborhood school and, in a city largely stratified along ethnic and economic lines, transcends class boundaries by integrating a socially and economically diverse student and parent population.
The present crisis, as challenging and potentially divisive as it may be, also creates an opportunity for the Medford community to assert its values and mobilize itself in the best interests of all our children. Options that pit schools against schools and neighbors against neighbors are not real options. The projects promised in the bond measure are all worthy goals; in light of increased costs, however, projects in all schools should be reconsidered and scaled back as necessary. At times of crisis, shared sacrifice is preferable to a clear divide between "winners" and "losers."
For the future of our schools and our children, the School Board should recommission the Facilities Task Force to examine a broader range of options than the four currently proposed. In order to capitalize on the opportunity to galvanize our community in support of our schools, it is vital that the fates of all of our schools be determined by a process that is consultative and transparent in more than name only.
Such a process would not impose prior constraints on the range of options and would incorporate broadly based public input into decisions rather than simply allowing for comment after the fact. It would publicly disclose what information and criteria the task force used in developing the four options and deciding against others such as scaling back projects at all schools.
A decision on the part of the School Board to pursue an open, inclusive and responsive approach is essential to creating a future in which the entire community is united and empowered to act in the best interest of all of our children.
John T. King is an assistant professor of education at Southern Oregon University and the parent of two Roosevelt elementary students.