My Two Cents: On community building and local public education

Photo courtesy T. Carter Ross.

BY DAN MUTH —Living in Hyattsville has been described as small-town living in the heart of the big city. To some extent this is true. We fraternize with our neighbors, exchange baby clothes, and mingle on the streets, in the café, or at any number of city- and community-sponsored events. It might be said, without too much cynicism, that we care about each other. And I think that’s fairly accurate as well.

But it’s impossible not to notice that the relative size and interactivity of the community is largely dependent on a few notable demographics that tend to break up “we are Hyattsville” into a small fraction of the whole. In short, “we” comes with a set of implied and invisible barriers that tend to segregate the community in a manner that proximal living does not alleviate.

This is less of an indictment of Hyattsville and more a canon of sociology. Like tends to search out like, so while many of us value the diversity in town, in the end, we fail to explore what that means beyond maintaining a relatively OK attitude toward it. Differences of race, religion, education and language are difficult to bridge. Exploring beyond our predispositions becomes inconvenient, and we are busy people living busy lives. So we form our own community within the community and then blithely proclaim that we are Hyattsville.

I say this as a dad who has been confronted by a dizzying array of educational choices for my almost 5-year-old son. Going further, I’m a dad from a small Midwestern town where there was one public school and everyone went to it. And it’s from this vantage point that I’ve come to see the pull of school choice as detrimental to deeper and more meaningful community building within Hyattsville.

A heady accusation to be sure. So while I realize the anxiety of crafting a child’s college resume seems to be occurring prenatally these days, the truth is the advantages we are trying to carve out for our children are ultimately up to them. The most important correlations between children and academic success are related to parental involvement rather than school curriculum. The separation of kids based on questionable testing has been shown to be detrimental to the educational outcomes of all kids, whether they are precocious or late-to-develop. And through all the increasingly maddening specialization, a 2013 report by the Economic Policy Institute found that schools are now more segregated than they were 40 years ago.

Beyond this, there is more to be learned at school than what is found in a textbook. There are lessons on society, fairness, justice, class, and one’s place within the world. There are lessons on community and what the full expression of that can and should be. There are also lessons on empathy and inclusivity. I’m reminded of that every time I go home and can’t pass a car that doesn’t have the local school bumper sticker — that ultimate expression of “we.”

Schools are the nexus of vibrant and interactive communities. As our children play together and learn together, they develop their own commonalities. As parents shuttle kids to playdates and soccer games and school activities, they develop their own commonalities too. Local schools provide the forum that we are too busy and comfortable to provide in our everyday lives.

In the end, parents need to make their own value decisions about what is right for their families, and to be sure, well-thought rebuttals can be made to some of the perceptions I’ve briefly touched on here. But if it is to be we, let us venture beyond the royal we. WE are Hyattsville. So I’ll see you in the fall at Hyattsville Elementary.