Rethink Schools as Community Centers

Pinehurst School was slated to be closed in 1991, after Oregon voters passed Measure 5. My two sons were enrolled in the two-room schoolhouse in the mountains, 22 miles east of Ashland. Our neighbors and friends were aghast that voters would force elementary students to trade a five-minute walk or bike ride for a 90-minute bus trip down and up a dangerously winding mountain road.

Oregon had voted for efficiency and equality, but it didn’t look that way to us.

Pinehurst parents mobilized. Forbidden by Measure 5 to adequately tax themselves, they launched monthly International Dinners, hosted by the students and tied to their curriculum. They had bake sales. I treasure the recipe for Pinehurst Cookies. The recipe mixed that community in a new way. The school was an essential ingredient. The crisis provided the heat. The recipe makes 12 dozen cookies, which is kind of the point.

Pinehurst School is still open today. They’ve since added a gymnasium, a soccer field, a greenhouse, and a new playground. The last time I checked, the entry key still hung in a “secret spot” that everybody knew. The school’s unprotected wi-fi connection occasionally draws high schoolers working on laptops from picnic tables outside.

I learned from those residents of Lincoln, Oregon that a school is more than a school. It’s the centerpoint for a community. It’s where you go to see what’s going on all around you. Town meetings convene in the larger spaces, friendships are built in the smaller ones.

Eugene School District 4J has proposed the imminent closure of six schools as part its effort to trim $30 million from its budget. I understand the need for efficiencies, and Superintendent George Russell’s plan may be a model of prudence. Student populations have been shrinking in his district and demographers predict the trend will continue, and probably accelerate. Bricks and mortar are expensive to maintain, and school budgets are constitutionally constrained now in Salem.

Fortunately, Russell can turn to a new friend in Salem: past and future Governor John Kitzhaber. Just as Russell has proposed tinkering with the traditional division of elementary, middle and high schools, Kitzhaber has argued with evangelistic zeal for more fluidity between public schools, community colleges, state universities, and life-long learning. Oregonians, our incoming governor insists, must never stop learning.

If only we had a place to do it, all of us, within walking distance from our homes.

We’ve outgrown our rural roots, when Grange halls dotted the countryside. But the social need to gather geographically hasn’t diminished. I believe it’s become more important to know our neighbors as we’ve grown closer together. Parks and cemeteries are good for families and dogs, but only in pleasant weather. Churches may open their doors to all, but some will not accept the invitation. Where else can you walk to without spending money? We don’t even vote in a single place anymore. This economic and demographic pinch can provide us an opportunity to revive our geographic connections.

Schools need less space, but you can’t shrink a building. So share it. 

Senior citizens need a drop-in location to play checkers, read newspapers, and watch young energy. The Eugene Public Library could use each location for pick-ups and returns. There may be a community theater ready to be born, if only the cafeteria stage became available on weekends. Expand the school’s teacher lounge and open it each evening, together with the building’s wi-fi connection — instant neighborhood hot spot, literally and figuratively.

I’m not suggesting any of this should be provided free by the already cash-strapped school district. People should be given the opportunity to pay for these neighborhood amenities, free of any spending caps that Measure 5 imposed. If a neighborhood doesn’t gather the necessary support to keep a school’s doors open, then that’s also local control.

Give parents and community members a chance to bring their schools — the buildings! — back to economic viability. The struggle to find a way will itself build the community. Those Pinehurst Cookies taste better because they served the greater good. They remind me always to live in a way that makes room for 12 dozen friends.
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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard. The recipe for Pinehurst Cookies is on his blog at www.dksez.com.
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PINEHURST COOKIES
Mix dry ingredients:
– 10 cups flour
– 4 tsp. baking soda
– 3 tsp. salt
Cream:
– 1 cup margarine
– 1 cup butter
– 2 cups shortening
– 4 cups packed brown sugar
– 2 cups sugar
– 8 eggs
– 4 tsp. vanilla
Add dry ingredients to cream. Beat! Add 3 1/2 cups of chocolate chips and 3 cups of chopped nuts.
Bake 400º for 8-10 minutes.
Makes 12 dozen.