Loss of a school, 'loss of community'
The Arizona Republic
Jun. 10, 2005
Bethune Elementary closes its doors today, upsetting neighbors
Karina Bland

For 58 years, Bethune Elementary School has been the anchor in a neighborhood that doesn't have much but at least it had a school.

It is where families came to celebrate Halloween and Christmas, parents learned English and toddlers learned about shapes and colors at the Head Start program.

It was the starting point for businesses and the meeting place for residents, who over the years have banded together to fight toxic-waste plants and excess emissions in the central Phoenix area. But after today, its halls will be quiet and the playground silent. The Phoenix Elementary School District decided last week to temporarily close it because of poor test scores and a $2.2 million deficit. Next year, Bethune's 500 children will be scattered to other nearby schools.

"The school is a main artery to the heart of that community," says Rep. Leah Landrum Taylor, D-Phoenix, who received dozens of calls since the decision.

To see the anchor is to see past the old buildings, the fields that are left to mud some years and the hand-dryers that never worked.

On Monday, residents plan to band together again to march two miles in protest from the school to the state Capitol. They don't want to lose their anchor.

Closing the school will change the neighborhood. It will fence off one of the few safe places to play, hurt business at the market and nearby day-care facilities and destroy dreams, like the one of a little girl hoping to be the third generation of her family to graduate from Bethune.

"Without a school," teacher Linda Pawlak says, "you don't have a community."


The corner market

On the way to and from school, children stop to buy candy and soda at the New Family Market, digging quarters from the pockets of their blue uniform shorts.

The loss of their purchases when Bethune closes won't hurt Ed Rayis' business much. He worries more that the closure will hurt the makeup of the neighborhood.

Rayis has owned the small market a half-block from Bethune for 15 years. From behind bulletproof glass, he has watched the drug houses and bad guys pushed out by police and kept out by the constant presence of kids in school uniforms and moms pushing strollers.

A lot of kids and moms in a neighborhood are bad for any illegal business; under constant kid surveillance, the bad guys have taken much of that kind of trade elsewhere.

Rayis now fears that families will move out of the area and that the people who replace them won't be of the same caliber. From his store, he can hear kids playing in the schoolyard, the thump of basketballs and the afternoon bell.

"This school keeps the neighborhood full of life," he says.

His littlest shoppers tell him that they want to stay at Bethune. He worries that their empty school will be vandalized. Once the sidewalks are empty of children and moms, Rayis says, "it's going to be worse and worse."


A teacher

First-grade teacher Linda Pawlak is packing up Room 131, trying to fit four years of books, bears and other teaching materials into cardboard boxes.

Pawlak doesn't know where she will be working next school year, though she has been promised a job in the district. She also has been asked to be on the committee that will remake Bethune School.

Plans are to reopen the school after a year, revamping curriculum and hiring a new principal and staff.

Pawlak isn't worried about herself. A 41-year teaching veteran, Pawlak has been with the district for 14 years, the last four at Bethune. She retired from teaching once before in Illinois. She continues to teach because kids such as the ones at Bethune still need her.

Pawlak is the kind of teacher that promised her students' parents that she would teach their children to read if they would help. They've helped, coming to every parent-teacher conference, volunteering, and signing off on homework every night.

"We have a lot of parents who want the best for their kids," Pawlak says.

So they walk their kids to school; it's just not safe for them to walk alone. They read to their kids and remind them to listen to their teacher.

"This school is the secure place in this community," Pawlak says. "This is the place parents can count on." Pushing aside a box, the teacher corrects herself: "This was the place parents could count on."


A mother

As a kid, Josephine Flores learned to read, skip rope and play the saxophone at Bethune.

Now, two of her boys, Vincent, 6, and Josť, 8, are there, making childhood memories of their own.

"Remember, at Halloween we brought our costumes," Josť, a third-grader, says to Pawlak, his first-grade teacher. His little brother is in Pawlak's class now.

The boys are following a family tradition. Their mom, uncle and grandfather, Carlos Otero, also went to Bethune. The boys have been listening to their stories for years.

"It's like a connection that we all have, that we all went to the same school," Flores says.

In her father's day, lunch was made from scratch in the cafeteria. Her children eat pizza wrapped in plastic from a central district kitchen.

Flores lives across the street from the playground, a gate in the blue fencing opening to her front yard.

She walked to school with her brother as her father did with his nine siblings. But she walks her boys to school, checking in with their teachers and catching up on gossip.

If you're looking for someone in this neighborhood and they're not at home, you check the school. That will change when Bethune closes and the neighborhood's children go to different schools.

"It will be weird not to see the kids playing in the morning," Flores says, adding that it also means an end to mothers gathering when it's time for the bell.

Because of her schedule, and the fact that she has a car, she will be able to be involved at her sons' new school. But many Bethune parents are without transportation, so they'll be hard-pressed to do the same.

Next school year, her boys will go to Phoenix Advantage Charter School. Vincent leans against his mother. "I don't want to go to that other school," he says. "I want to stay here."

In protest, 277 parents signed a petition saying they won't send their children to any other district schools. Flores will send her boys back to Bethune when it reopens. The school is like family.


After-school program

Every day at about 3:30 p.m., a half-dozen children tramp out of the blue gates in front of Bethune School and down the block to a beige stucco building with "Shellie's Early Start After-School and Learning Center" spray-painted on the side.

The kids rush in, shouting, "Ms. Nicole, guess what happened at school today?"

The center's director, Nicole McKinney, listens as she gets them a snack - "they're always starving" - and gets them started on homework.

The kids stay there until their parents get off work. They will likely have to go somewhere else when Bethune closes. Like the nearby market, the loss of a few children won't hurt the center, which has an enrollment of about 25.

"It's just too bad that they'll have to change," McKinney says. "They like coming here."

The walls of the center are painted with pink squares and red triangles, and fingerpaintings line the walls. The shelves are full of books and games.

The center is open from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m., flexible hours for parents who work different shifts. Most day-care centers keep only day-shift hours.

Other schools are nearby but not close enough for children to walk to the center. McKinney will miss her after-school arrivals. "We don't want to see them go. We love them."


A student

Latasha London, 11, had her heart set on graduating from Bethune next year, just as her mother and grandmother did.

Instead, Latasha will finish sixth grade at another school and then go on to junior high, never returning to Bethune.

At a meeting last week, Latasha begged School Board members not to close Bethune, standing on tiptoe to reach the microphone. She says now, "They weren't thinking right."

As part of a class project, Latasha is dressed as Phillis Wheatley, an African-American poet of the late 1700s, in a long dress made of purple paper. Latasha writes poetry, too. It fills the pages of a black composition book.

"I think our school is valuable because it's been here a long time," Latasha says.

She has been here since she was in the Head Start preschool program. "I was trying to make my way to the sixth grade here." Latasha is on the principal's list, with nearly all A's.

"I feel really awful that they're closing down our school," she says.

Still, Latasha hasn't given up hope that her school will stay open, praying that the grown-ups will come to their senses.

"I can't bounce around from school to school," she says. "This is my school; I should be here."