"I forget the names of towns without rivers" is the opening line of a poem by Richard Hugo published in 1984, and recited by my fly fisherman son as he guided me on the Muskegon River last month.
My son thinks about rivers, while I think about schools. And my mind quickly converted the poetic line to, "I forget the names of towns without schools." I do. And I don't think I'm alone in this sentiment.
As I drive the length and width of Michigan's two peninsulas, I pass through many towns where school buildings have been converted to other uses or, more often, sit idle, surrounded by under-used commercial areas and vacant housing. I tend to forget the names of those towns.
Schools have been the anchor to, and given identity to, small towns throughout Michigan, and to the neighborhoods of larger towns. As schools have consolidated during the past two generations, many of the towns that lost their schools have also lost their identity and much of their vitality. The school consolidation movement that stripped towns and neighborhoods of their "brand" was supposed to improve access to broader and deeper curriculum choices for students and reduce the financial costs of delivering world-class education to local classrooms.
That's admirable. But of course, that thinking preceded the Internet which now allows students attending schools of any size in any place to receive any subject available in any other place in our state, nation or the world, and to do so without students being bused hither and yon and at much lower overhead compared to past delivery systems.
If we want to rejuvenate our state, returning schools to the center of small towns and neighborhoods will be central to our strategy. Both the technology and the teaching are available to do so in every corner of our state. It's the money spent on transporting children that's wasted; not the money on teaching those children in neighborhood facilities.