Three days from now, my local school board will vote on a proposal to close my neighborhood elementary school. The vote follows 14 weeks of exhausting, emotional engagement among families, school district staff, and school board members alike.
I live in Arlington, Virginia, an area with a rapidly growing school-age population. Like several other schools in the county, my school, McKinley, is over capacity. In McKinley’s case, this has been particularly vexing because the school was expanded about five years ago in order to alleviate capacity issues. When it didn’t, district officials told our school community that construction of a new school nearby would bring us needed relief in September 2021.
Three months ago, we were surprised to learn that the district planned to close our school in September 2021 and convert the building for use as an option school. (In Arlington, we have five “option” elementary schools that function as county-wide, lottery-admission magnet programs.) District officials told us that in order to solve capacity issues across the county, they need to move one of these option programs to the McKinley site. The district presented two proposals for moving around a handful of schools: McKinley was the only neighborhood school named in both proposals.
Things blew up quickly. Within 24 hours, some other McKinley parents had formed a “Save McKinley” Facebook group. “Save McKinley” t-shirts and yard signs were ordered. At the school’s annual Halloween Parade, it was all the adults could talk about. And as the school’s PTA president, I was immediately caught up in a storm of emails and text messages. For example, while I was on a videoconference with my Astra colleagues Kris and Sara, I received more than 70 text messages from concerned McKinley parents in the space of one hour.
I’m not a person who deals well with conflict or acts on impulse. My anxiety level shot through the roof. How should I respond to these parents? Would I know the right thing to do or say? What if I didn’t agree with their ideas about what to do? What if I let everyone down? And dear God, why did this have to happen while I was in charge of our PTA, with my youngest just months away from middle school?
For me, anxiety usually translates into an intense craving for control. I make a lot of lists. My house becomes especially clean. And I have a strong urge to script other people’s words and actions in an effort to reduce the number of variables at play.
This experience was no exception—I felt and wished for all those things. But two factors caused it to play out differently: first, there was no way for me to stay in “lockdown” mode for 14 weeks. I knew within the first week that I wouldn’t be able to sustain the level of effort and anxiety that this was kicking up for me. And second, these “variables”—the other adults in my school community—were politely but firmly telling me that they weren’t going to be happy just following my playbook.
So this rolled out differently than it would have if I had been Ruler of the Universe. And because of that, I know other people in my school community in a different and deeper way. For instance, I learned that we have among us people who will pore over maps and spreadsheets, parents who can educate me and others about the particular impacts of school moves on students with special needs, professionals who understand equity at a level I may never reach, and individuals who possess a spirit of civility and generosity that inspires me. For example, Kathleen, who convinced me to return to a district-led meeting I’d wanted to flee, so that we could say thank you to the staff members who had strong ideas of their own that were very much in tension with mine. Sometimes we need a friend or colleague to remind us that small relationship gestures in a tense moment are worth making. I appreciated her counsel (and the beer she bought me afterward.)
I’ve learned some new things about myself, too. I learned that every time I resisted the urge to dictate our community’s response and to feel like the responsibility for success or failure was entirely mine, the result was better. Every single time I put my trust in others in my community, my faith was rewarded. In the process, my role as our PTA leader went from feeling like an obligation to an honor. Following a particularly difficult meeting between an invited School Board member and about 100 McKinley parents in December, where the parents exercised great patience and politeness and asked incredibly smart questions, I wrote via our PTA listserv, “I have never been prouder to represent you.”
I’ve understood for a long time on an intellectual level that vulnerability and openness and shared purpose are important. But I don’t know if I really lived that out before now.
I don’t mean to suggest that these experiences of interpersonal connection and heightened self-awareness have made it all easy. I wouldn’t wish the past 14 weeks on my school community or any other, and all the data suggest that the proposal put forward by district officials is seriously flawed, though well-intentioned.
But as the date for the vote draws near, I’m thinking about two things:
First, I see that I’ve come to really know and appreciate my school community only now, at the point my family is getting ready to leave it. And I know that the fault for this is entirely my own, because I had been content to know them in a limited (or nonexistent) way and to have them fill bit parts in the play I had scripted.
And second, I think about how much stronger the larger community could be if the School Board, district staff, and families could work together in a spirit of genuine trust, openness, and shared purpose in the way I’ve just experienced. It’s a question for all schools and districts, beyond my own: what could we learn about each other, and how much more could we achieve, if we invite each other in?
Photo of McKinley staff and students courtesy of Samantha Sklar