Sunday, November 20, 2005

Barnes is important to Old North End (BFP Editorial)

Burlington Free Press Editorial
Published: Sunday, November 20, 2005

Schools are more than bricks and mortar. They are village centers, the heart and soul of their neighborhoods, the place where parents catch up on local news and children discover life's lessons and friendships.

Lawrence Barnes Elementary School is just such a place for many residents of the Old North End. For the most part, they love their school. As a community, they feel a pride of ownership in the building and all that it symbolizes.

Closing Barnes would strip the center from this relatively lower-income section of the city that already feels underserved and neglected. The Burlington School Board is considering a proposal to close Barnes as part of a consolidation plan without adequate public involvement, but should withdraw the suggestion for now.

There are several good reasons for keeping Barnes open.

Virtually all the children can walk to school, which is important because many parents in this district don't own cars. Not only would closing the school require busing students to schools in other parts of the city, but their parents would be less able to participate in school events and teacher meetings because of their own transportation difficulties.

In addition, the city of Burlington has put time, effort and money into revitalizing stretches of the Old North End with improved sidewalks, lighting, streets and other quality-of-life measures. Now is not the time to undermine that message of restoration by shutting down something as vital as the local school.

Although enrollment at Barnes has been declining somewhat in recent years, it's clear that lower property values in the Old North End -- along with the revitalization improvements -- might prompt more families to move to this neighborhood. It is hoped that more children of varied economic levels and diverse backgrounds will look to Barnes for their education in the coming years.

Ultimately, the deciding factor must be what is in the best interest of the children. It's hard to believe that they would benefit from the closing of their school — being bused away from their home and friends, shipped to larger classrooms at a time when smaller is widely viewed as better, and no longer able to walk to and from school.

The parents of Barnes students have expressed a willingness to publicly debate closure of the school, a conversation that should include the role of the nearby H.O. Wheeler Elementary School, as well. That discussion should be thorough and take as long as needed to reach a reasonable consensus.

Any decision to close either school needs to follow that public debate. Now is not the time to close Barnes.

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