Edisto Beach Elementary School is closing its doors at the end of the 2012-2013 school year. They're calling it a suspension, but with only nine students enrolled this year, unless there's a population boom of elementary school-aged children in the near future, I imagine the suspension will be permanent.
It's always hard to see a public school close. It's easy to think about the children who will be displaced, to picture their drawings fluttering to the floor of an empty hallway lined with locked classroom doors. Next year, those students will attend a nearby school in Charleston County. It's only five minutes away, still rural and small, but it's bigger than the school the children currently attend. There will be new friends to make and new teachers from whom to learn.
The decision to end Edisto Elementary's run as the only elementary school on tiny Edisto Island was based largely on economics. The average cost per student for public school kids in the United States is just over $11,000. But with only nine students and an operating budget of $200,000, the cost of each student in this school was double the national average. It makes economic sense to close the school.
That said, we don't care about these kinds of financial matters when we talk about our children's schools. We care about the education they receive, the nurturing environment in which they spend their days. We care about their teachers, their principals. We always think smaller is better. When you look at it that way, it sounds tragic to close a school in which teachers knew intimately all of their children and in which children of all ages interacted daily, helping one another, with the younger ones learning from their elders.
But this doesn't have to be a tragedy.
I am a product of public schools. I went to an elementary school with hundreds of other students. In kindergarten, I took a bus to school, often dragged by my brothers since I was a little dramatic. But crowded in among dozens of other kindergartners, I learned key life skills at an early age. Negotiation. Debate. Self-confidence. Humility.
Perhaps my teachers didn't know me as well as the two teachers at Edisto Elementary know their nine pupils. They were certainly never physically affectionate — I don't remember a teacher ever hugging me. In fact, I was surprised, years ago, when I began working with a small Charleston school, by how often the students were hugged by their teachers. But a lot of things were still surprising to me about Charleston back then, like the soothing chill of sweet tea on a hot summer day or the stinging burn of a fire ant bite. Now that I'm more used to the South and its ways, I'm willing to bet that Edisto Elementary was very similarly nurturing to its students.
There are different forms of nurturing, though. When I was 10, a teacher pulled me aside one day when he saw I was feeling down. He told me that although I didn't feel as smart as one of my brothers, or as funny as another, I was special in my own way. He'd taught us all, you see, and remembered us, even in a crowded elementary school through which hundreds of students traveled every year.
When my husband and I recently toured the West Ashley elementary school in which we will enroll our daughter next year for kindergarten, the principal took time out of his day to lead us through his school. Along the way, numerous children stopped to say hello to him, to high-five him, or to toss a joke his way. They knew him, liked him, and were happy to have him around — even in a crowded public elementary school.
I believe in our public schools, and I believe in large and diverse student populations. I also know it's sad to see a tradition end. If I were a parent on Edisto Beach, I'd probably fight tooth and nail to keep the Edisto Beach Elementary open. But as an outsider, I can see that I'd potentially be doing my child a disservice.