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What would you do to change education if you ruled the world?

That’s how Jon Snyder began the Bank Street Niemeyer Panel at the Times Center on 41st Street – March 1, 2010.

The discussion: Race, Class, and Reform.

The panelists: Irving Hamer Jr., Peter McFarlane, Michael Nettles, Jeannie Oakes, and David Sciarra.

The mental image of James Cagney closing White Heat on top of an oil tank, talking at the sky – shouting – “Top of the World Ma! Top of the World!” And then Pow! White light!

The memory of that Tears for Fears song – What is that ringing at the beginning of the song? – A synthesizer? – “Welcome to your life, there’s no turning back…”

As ruler, Peter McFarlane, Principal at the Hugo Newman College Preparatory School,  desires more community engagement. His comment – “moving schools from mediocre to greatness” – reminded me of Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great. Jim Collins also wrote a monograph appending his book: Good to Great in the Social Sector. It distinguished between the measurements of greatness in the corporate world from those in the social sector. While the processes are elementally the same, the measurements are different.

What is a good school? What is a great school? It is easy to differentiate between bad and good – the two are polar. The distinction between good and great is far more difficult – there is a finer line identifying the two.

I’ve given good schools a lot of thought. I agreed with parts of the UCLA CRESST report, What Makes a Good School? A good school involves parents and the greater community. A great school would involve them in meaningful and transparent ways that promote its overall objectives (as defined by David Labaree and told by Eduwonkette):

  1. to prepare children for their place in the economy
  2. to achieve democratic equality
  3. to nurture social mobility

I believe as Peter believes – community involvement has the potential to transform a mediocre school to a great school.

The community school (by Sarah Fine):

Take neighborhood schools and turn them into community hubs, by extending their hours and broadening their uses. Rather than locking up on weekends and after the dismissal bell each day, a school might keep its facilities open, for use by partner organizations offering tutoring, recreation, health care, child care, meals, or English-as-a-second-language classes. The arrangement is win-win: Service organizations gain facilities and opportunities to collaborate, and families gain a more centralized system of services.

I believe when people are able to personalize an institution, they are much more likely to care about it – nurture and protect it. While it might offer the types of community services Sarah states – “tutoring, recreation, health care, child care, meals, or English-as-a-second-language classes” – it might also be a place to reflect – a place to get away. In a city like New York where the pace of life can run you ragged, a community school might just be the place to go to get absorbed in a book, to write, or to daydream.

But who composes the community? I am opposed to putting up barricades and drawing lines in the sand – dividing space into territories. It is ridiculous in the virtual age – an age where technology and availability of the Internet have furthered the realities of the global village.

The online Encyclopedia of Informal Education provides these three interacting – overlapping – definitions of community:

Place… where people have something in common, and this shared element is understood geographically.

Interest… people are linked together by factors such as religious belief, sexual orientation, occupation or ethnic origin.

Communion… In its weakest form we can approach this as a sense of attachment to a place, group or idea (in other words, whether there is a ‘spirit of community’). In its strongest form ‘communion’ entails a profound meeting or encounter…

Can I propose a “communionity”? A communionity school? A school that would communicate the spirit of a community school on a broader, more inclusive, more open stage?

The communionity school would retain local geographical and cultural characteristics that it would actively transmit to other schools that would do the same. This active sharing would create a more informed holistic system for learning and growing by revealing commonalities and exploring differences among peoples.

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