Enterprise Story: Lack Of Public Schools In The Whiteaker

The Whiteaker Neighborhood May Be At A Disadvantage Without Any Public Schools Within Its Borders.

By: Paul Kiefer

The location of the former Whiteaker Elementary. The building is now the Whiteaker Head Start Center.

In 2001, Ambrose Holtham-Keathley was nine years old and in the third grade at Whiteaker Elementary. That same year, his school closed down. Now, ten years later and 19 years old, Holtham-Keathley still remembers the events of that year and how they affected him.

He was transferred to River Road Elementary, 120 West Hilliard Avenue, at the start of his fourth grade year. River Road was still easily bike-able for Holtham-Keathley, but he says it was rough having to adjust to a new school.

In addition, he became separated from a number of his friend. Some were sent to Cesar Chavez Elementary, located in the Jefferson Westside neighborhood on West 14th Avenue. While other friends of his began spending the majority of their time in the River Road area instead of in the Whiteaker neighborhood.

“Some families even moved out of the neighborhood when Whiteaker Elementary closed down. They moved in order to be closer to the school their children transferred to, or so they would be in the proper neighborhood and be accepted into their desired school,” says Holtham-Keathley.

The Whiteaker neighborhood of Eugene no longer has any public schools within its borders. The last school, Whiteaker Elementary, was shutdown in 2001 due to budget cuts and declining student enrollment. It has been 10 years since the closure of Whiteaker Elementary, and some of the local residents miss what the neighborhood school offered the community.

Josh Allen, a local resident of the Whiteaker and employee of Clay Space, located on Polk Street near the old elementary school, was sad to see Whiteaker Elementary close down and expresses a desire for a public school in the neighborhood once again. Although he does not have kids, he enjoys seeing the benefits a school offers a neighborhood, including community outreach programs such as fundraisers or community gardens.

Craig Smith, a member of the Eugene School District 4J Board of Directors since 1994, shared a slightly different opinion. He has been involved in 16 school closures during his career, so he is very familiar with the protocol and effects of school closures. He was also around when the decision to shut down Whiteaker Elementary was made, and remembers the public outcry it caused.

“Parents always have a strong reaction and ask, ‘why my child’s school?’ when a school closes down,” Smith says.

The closing down of Whiteaker Elementary was unfortunate, yet Smith believes that small schools and class sizes do not provide the synergy for effective learning, and therefore resources and teachers could be better utilized if funneled into larger schools. Towards the end, Whiteaker Elementary had less than 200 students, and Smith says 350 students is considered the low end of the spectrum for a school to remain open.

The former Whiteaker Elementary school building is now home to the Whiteaker Head Start Center.

“In addition, the building is now being used for the Whiteaker Head Start Center, so it is still benefiting the community with a valuable resource, just in a different way,” Smith says.

The Whiteaker does have private schools, mainly preschools, and other community resources that benefit the neighborhood, but according to several sources, there are noticeable advantages that public schools bring to a community.

An article on the website Blue Oregon discusses a number of benefits that neighborhood schools offer. It explains that neighborhood schools help strengthen a child’s ties to his or her neighbors, both peers and adults. Children also have the opportunity to get exercise by walking or biking to school, which is valuable because more and more kids in America are diagnosed with childhood obesity.

Betsy Boyd, a member of the 4J budget committee, further explained the benefits of neighborhood schools and why she feels the Whiteaker is at a disadvantage without schools in its borders. Boyd has been involved with 4J since 2001, and even before she was officially involved with the district she has paid close attention to the school system. Boyd feels that strong neighborhood schools make for strong neighborhoods.

“Neighborhood schools bring people together from all demographic levels, creating opportunities for understanding and experiences with diverse peoples that strengthen the community and (at the risk of sounding too grandiose) that strengthen our democracy,” Boyd says.

Boyd also sees the Whiteaker at a disadvantage because it has no nearby elementary school, and its attendance area aligns with River Road/Cesar Chavez Elementary, Kelly Middle School and North Eugene High, instead of South Eugene High, which she says is closer and makes for easier transportation linkage.

Denisa Taylor, the principal of Cesar Chavez Elementary, is a strong supporter of the public school system as well. She has experienced firsthand how a school benefits the community as a whole and the valuable resources offered to families that they might otherwise have to forgo.

“One thing neighborhood schools do is decrease the commuting time parents have to spend taking their kids to and from school,” Taylor says, “which is especially helpful in a lower-income area like the Whiteaker, where parents could be working two or more jobs to support their family.”

Cesar Chavez Elementary provides crucial non-educational resources for students from low-income families. Taylor said the school has a washer and dryer so students can have clean clothes, children are offered showers and soap so they can maintain good hygiene, and the school offers three meals a day to a number of students.

“If you don’t meet a child’s basic needs, they’re not going to learn,” Taylor says.

A good example of how schools benefit the Whiteaker can be seen at Parkside Community Preschool. The school is located next to Maurie Jacob’s Park on Thomason Lane. The directors of the preschool, Diane Shultz and Michelle Lang, keep an eye on the nearby park and do not hesitate to report any suspicious activity to the local police officers.

The extra eyes and ears a neighborhood school offers to a community can be helpful in deterring unwanted behavior. Scobert Gardens Park, across from the Tiny Tavern on 4th and Blair, has become a big concern for the neighborhood in regards to drug use. Some of the local residents have even nicknamed it “Heroin Park.” Holtham-Keathley believes that if there were public schools within the Whiteaker, there would be more public outcry about the park, and police would patrol it more frequently to help resolve the issue.

Tod Schneider, a Crime Prevention Specialist who has been working and living in Eugene for 25 years, commented about the eyes and ears a school lends to a neighborhood as well. The students, parents, and teachers at Whiteaker Elementary helped to report suspicious activities to the police, and Schneider says the police have missed that resource since Whiteaker has closed down.

Schneider says, “Schools act as an anchor tenant for the neighborhood.” They are a gathering place for the community members and they bring neighborhood problems and solutions into focus.

“The closure of Whiteaker Elementary was a blow to the neighborhood’s sense of continuity, and left a hole to fill,” Schneider says.

The Whiteaker neighborhood has become a different place since losing their elementary school. Schools encourage local residents to get more involved with their community. An example Principal Taylor gave is that at Cesar Chavez Elementary, senior citizens come once a month as “foster grandparents” to socialize with the students, and members of local churches keep students company during lunchtime.

“The Whiteaker Community Council is nice, but it’s beneficial to have an institution to help bring people together,” Holtham-Keathley says.

Holtham-Keathley has experienced firsthand how important a neighborhood school is to the community. If the Whiteaker neighborhood still had its elementary school, families would be better connected because schools build communities. When a neighborhood loses its schools, it loses a big part of its identity.

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