I just returned from a community meeting about supporting neighborhood schools in Durham, North Carolina. It got me thinking.
Living, as I do, in a city where parents are bombarded with school choice – charter schools, specialized magnet schools, private schools – and where
many families a certain subset of families spend an awful lot of time and a considerable amount of angst fretting about the "right" school for their kid, it can be easy to forget that neighborhood schools have a lot going for them.
And one of those things, I suspect, is their environmental impact.
Sure, during the seemingly inevitable tour of all our school options, we saw charters that had fundraised to take a classroom off the grid, we heard about schools with special composting programs, or backyard chickens. But I suspect the single biggest indicator of a school's total environmental impact is going to be how far students travel to get there.
Not only are families traveling shorter distances more likely to walk, bike or take the bus, but by encouraging a critical mass of families to choose cleaner options, it's also possible to set up schemes like a walking bus or even a bike bus. And when families do drive, they'll drive shorter distances. (Car pooling may also be more feasible if everyone lives within a specific geographical area.)
The benefits stretch well beyond pick up and drop off, though, too. In a school system where students are dispersed across the district, social networks become dispersed too. From play dates to swim team practice to PTA meetings, the distances you'll travel for school are greater than you might think at first. And then you add that to the fact that your own social networks become shaped by school and community connections, the miles pile up even higher.
Of course, I'm not suggesting that your school-travel carbon footprint should be the only, or even the primary, factor in school choice. Nor am I going to weigh in on the thorny and complex debate of whether school choice is a good or bad thing. Our children aren't just tools for expressing our own political/social/environmental agenda. Just as you can't fix issues like poverty or class/racial segregation by simply picking the school you send your kids to, I don't expect anyone to choose a school that doesn't feel right for their family just for the sake of sending a message to Big Oil.
I'm simply saying that for many of us, a neighborhood school might simply be the best option – from an environmental, a social and an educational standpoint – and we shouldn't let the plethora of school choices distract us from the very real benefits of keeping education local and supporting the schools in the community in which you live. From the impacts of biking to school on student concentration and performance to the multiple benefits of walking to school, this really isn't about sacrificing your family for the sake of the planet.
As someone at tonight's meeting said, there's something wonderful about seeing the neighborhood convene by foot to collect their kids from school that you just don't see in a more dispersed system.
That's an education I would like my child to have.