One of the first questions I’m asked whenever I meet another native San Franciscan is: What high school did you go to?
It’s an innocent question, one that helps people locate me in my hometown city. But it’s loaded. My alma mater, International Studies Academy — ISA for short —is too small to have a football team. Since it’s only been around since 1990, it’s too new to have any legendary alums. And it’s always on the verge of closing, a distinction it shares with thousands of other schools predominately serving students of color.
Last year, I should have been at my 10-year high school reunion. I say “should have” because it didn’t happen. My high school is a small, alternative school of mostly Latino, black and Asian immigrant students on the outskirts of San Francisco’s Mission District.
The school opened in 1990 as one of San Francisco’s few charters. It was, by design, focused on global learning and had sister schools in countries like Japan that would host annual student exchanges.
By the time I arrived in 1999, the school had lost its charter and been absorbed completely into the district. By 2006, it was consolidated with a local middle school, part of the district’s focus renewed focus on smaller schools. When the classes are able to raise enough money, they still host annual trips to Cuba, Mexico and France. My time there was arguably the most meaningful of my 12 years of public education.
But since I graduated in 2003, there have persistent rumors among staff and alumni that it’s on the brink of closure.
We’re not the only ones. San Francisco’s school district has been plagued by under-enrollment in recent years, a side effect of a rapidly gentrifying population. Families with kids are being priced out. In a district with over 160 institutions educating 55,000 students, more than 13 have closed since 2000Others, like my high school, have been consolidated, but live perpetually on the district’s budgetary chopping block due to under enrollment and low test scores.
The cumulative effect of all of that uncertainty is a disengaged alumni network. We keep in touch over Facebook, and occasionally get together when someone takes the initiative to make dinner reservations when we’re all home. But there’s no administrator sending out reminders about the Class of 2003’s biggest moments, and no one seemed particularly invested in making an actual reunion happen. It’s not that we don’t know the value of the education we received and the community that we built, but it’s much harder to act on that without external validation.
Nationally, school closures have become a trend. In 2001, 717 traditional public schools closed in the United States. A decade later, that figure had risen to 1,069 schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Those numbers don’t really capture all that’s gone missing. The teachers like Ms. Grace, who made intimidating topics like Physics accessible to classrooms of kids, or my track coach, Otis, who bankrolled student memberships at a nearby 24 Hour Fitness so that we could train at 6 every morning. There are the traditional success stories, the kids who went off to Duke and Emory and Fisk and USC, and then there are the kids for whom just being alive and free 10 years after high school is a success all by itself.
Of course, you can’t quantify those stories. In an education reform-driven world, they don’t matter much. But the judgments imposed by those types of assessments linger long after graduation. “Schools have an essential role to play in renewing and invigorating American democracy by encouraging critical thinking and civic engagement,” education theorist Pedro Noguera wrote in ‘The Nation.’ When schools close, that link to a city, to a community, is irrevocably broken.
And when that break happens, there are consequences. The benefits of having an alumni network, particularly in a big city besieged by new wealth, disappear. Friends don’t stay in touch and graduates are hard-pressed to stay connected to the community that helped educate them. The wealth that inner city communities do have — each other — depreciates each year that they have to begin building social networks in different communities. Schools are tasked not only with the education and socialization of generations of children, but they’re also important hubs in those communities. Generations of families go to them, know of them, and see their civic identities in one way or another directly through them. And when they’re gone, a part of a city dies along with them.