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The Arlington Morning News
Arlington, Texas
May 15, 2000

Posted with permission on judithrichharris/tna.



COMMENTARY

Put kids first in boundary changes

by Cathy Brown


The power and long-lasting influence of the childhood peer group must be recognized and honored by adults. Those adults include parents, of course, and a school district that is messing with elementary school boundaries.

The Futures 2010 Boundary Committee has submitted plans for the attendance zones of three new elementary schools. They have another elementary, a junior high and Juan Seguin High School left to zone.

The Arlington Independent School District issued a list of considerations in its charge to the Boundary Committee. Chairman Mike O'Donnell calls them the critical criteria. They include student needs, safety, major streets, costs, growth, size, the feeder system, neighborhood identification and minimizing changes.

Another filter could come into play that would help the committee prioritize these criteria. In the past five years, a theory of the importance of the childhood peer group has been studied by family specialists. It is called Group Socialization Theory and has been promoted mainly by Judith Rich Harris in her book, The Nurture Assumption.

In February, I attended a workshop at the University of North Texas in Denton and heard a debate on this theory . The initial surprise for attendees was the position that the elementary peer group has even greater influence on the type of adults children turn out to be than does the adolescent peer group.

For decades, parents have fretted over the group their teens gravitate toward. Getting adolescents in with the "right crowd" helps them get through the tumultuous junior high and senior high years happily and safely. Granting even greater power to the play group in the elementary years requires a shift in emphasis.

Among Ms. Harris' many examples, a simple one stands out. Immigrants over the age of 13 or 14 who arrive on these shores speaking no English will never completely lose their foreign accent.

Non-English speaking children, however, who arrive here before adolescence will lose all trace of their original accents and will learn to speak the language with the same patterns, pronunciation and ease of a native-English speaker. This holds true even if they continue to speak their original language at home. The power of the early childhood play group will assimilate them, beyond their home environment, into American speech.

What does this theory have to do with drawing and accepting boundary changes?

Everything.

First, it raises the importance of neighborhoods assigned to the new school. For a fourth grader, it might be more important that his street and the ones in reasonable bike-riding distance be kept in the same school zone. Staying together would be more important than staying at the "old" school.

Second, it might put a new spin on the final criterion of "keeping change to a minimum." The worst thing for kids might be for just a sliver to be spun off from the old school. It might actually be a preservation of the play group for a large portion to be targeted for change, as long as they move together.

Here is a hypothetical example. Let's say the new school can absorb 600 students to relieve overcrowding at existing schools. Three old schools contributing 200 students each to the new school would disrupt the fewest number at each school. But it might actually be a healthier change to take 300 from two schools.

With those numbers, roughly 50 children from each grade would be moving together to the new campus. Although little Sally might be leaving her best friend Sara behind, Ashley and Jennifer and Allison and Brooke and a whole bunch of other girls in her peer group would go with her.

Group Socialization theory can calm parent reaction to the changes as well. As long as a significant number of "mates" are moving over to the new school, the changes for the children will be easier. Much easier than a move to a new town, or a trade to a bigger house across town or a transfer to another school in the district. In those situations, the child has to go it alone in the new territory, finding his or her place in a new play group.

And because elementary-age children don't easily tolerate differences within the group, the lone child who doesn't assimilate in the new group could be in for some rough times. Odd-man-out for a third grader is a tough place to be.

Another balm for parental nerves about boundary changes is the attention that will be paid to assimilation at the brand new school. Any good new faculty will respond purposefully to the power of the peer group. Parents must insist on assimilation as a stated goal of the new school. The faculty must work hard to blend this new group into a unified whole. Activities have to be undertaken for the express purpose of bringing everyone into the fold.

At established schools, just like in any long-lived group, folks in charge can forget what it's like to be new there. Assimilation becomes an effort the new kid has to make on his own. In other words, it becomes the responsibility of the newcomer to "try to fit in." A neophyte school avoids this obstacle because a welcoming attitude guarantees a successful start to its history.

A bonus to the school district that honors the influence of the childhood peer group is having elementary students who all want to go to "their" junior high and finish at their nearby high school.

To reduce the anxiety for children that the grown-up issues of city growth and over-crowded schools produce, the grownups in charge of shuffling kids should adopt these attitudes:

  • Willingness to pay for any extra bus routes in order to carve a significant piece of the play group to surround our littlest charges;
  • Faith that children can make the change successfully as long as they have plenty of partners;
  • Preparation for change that replaces parental hand-wringing with insistence on goals for assimilation;
  • And awareness of the importance of the childhood peer group.
Such an effort provides a foundation of excitement rather than foreboding for the kids who have to live with the change.


Commentary by Cathy Brown, an Arlington free-lance writer, appears regularly on Mondays.
She can be reached through e-mail (amn@dallasnews.com).
Copyright 2000 The Dallas Morning News. All Rights Reserved



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