Right-sizing Hearts By Saving Community Schools

Right-sizing Hearts By Saving Community Schools

In early April, I learned that my kids’ elementary school, an A-rated public school at the heart of a small community, is on a proposed closure list for Duval County Public Schools. It is one of 30+ schools across the district on the chopping block to be closed or consolidated. The reasons for this proposal (done by a third-party consultant at the request of the superintendent and school board) can be boiled down to a need to right-size the budget after eroding state tax dollars going to public education, rising construction costs, and inflation have created a deficit of $1.4 billion. 

Our community and many others were heartbroken to learn of these proposed plans. Before too long, several Save Our School groups formed. The one I am a part of, Save ABE, has led the charge by organizing bipartisan support to keep our city’s one school open. In the span of a week, we pooled resources to design yard signs and pink shirts, collaborated with Atlantic Beach Preservation to host a community conversation to educate and collect questions to send to school board representatives. Volunteers were recruited, tables set up at the local farmers’ markets, and donations collected for the signs/t-shirts. Not to mention the mobilization of people to show up to school board meetings, city commission sessions, town halls, and more. The phrase “all politics are local” hits hard when it hits home. 

From what I can gather after listening to people who know more than me on school utilization rates and boundary feeder patterns, Atlantic Beach Elementary is on this list for being a small school (583 student capacity) in an aging building. Built during the Art Deco period, my third grade son likes to remind me that his little pink school was built in 1939 (before WWII, mom!) which he thinks is pretty cool. As do I and many others. 

Image: watercolor drawing of Atlantic Beach Elementary by James Dupree

I’ve learned that ABE has one of the longest standing PTAs in Florida. (The oldest is West Riverside Elementary, organized in 1921, and also a school on the closure list.) When the district made cuts to extracurricular activities such as physical education, art, and music, ABE parents started one of the first non-profits called Friends of Atlantic Beach Elementary. Working closely with the PTA, FABE hosts festivals and fun runs to raise funds for capital projects like a track (open to the public outside of school hours), the salary of an additional P.E. teacher, computer classes, playground equipment, and even school maintenance. 

Perhaps I’ve gone on too long about how great my kids’ school is. It’s one of many great schools in the district and there are many factors to consider. After sitting through 6+ hour school board meetings, I left feeling physically ill from all the considerations for running the 20th largest district in the country. Walkability scores, FISH (Florida Inventory of School Houses) data, retention rates…it seems like a daunting and thankless task. Even more so, it’s hard getting old and realizing that the adults in charge are as fallible as the rest of us. 

Image: Students Celebrating May Day at Atlantic Beach Elementary School, May 9, 1949, from Beaches History Museum Archive

And yet for all the talk of budgets and stats, I think what I’m trying to express goes beyond the numbers and our human attempts to live and work and learn together. What value do we place on a neighbor, whose own children have left the nest, painting a tire swing with words of encouragement and love for all who pass by? How does one nurture a student, a family, a school, a community? How do we continue to weave the social fabric of our locally-led lives? 

I do not claim to have all the answers so I will wrap this up with a quote from cultural commentator David Brooks: “Whenever I treat another person as if he were an object, I’ve ripped the social fabric. When I treat another person as an infinite soul, I have woven the social fabric….The social fabric is created through an infinity of small moral acts, and it can be destroyed by a series of immoral ones.”