Mainewhile: It's beyond time to change how we do schools

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I sent my son off to school Monday morning. As he hoisted his backpack and began his goodbye, the morning news interviewed survivors of yet another school shooting. My son and I locked eyes.

“Don’t get shot, OK?,” I said.

It was a stupid thing to say, for all the obvious reasons, but what else is there to say?

What kind of crazy, unbalanced moment is it when a mother knowingly sends her child off to a situation that, statistically, is now more dangerous than a war zone, with more U.S. kids killed by guns since 2012 than U.S. soldiers killed in action abroad since 2001? What kind of society have we become when the next generation is being raised in this kind of calculated fear?

I hated high school. I loathed it, in fact. I wasn’t good at sports; I was nerdy and awkward. This is why I hated school. It never entered my mind I might be shot and killed. It wasn’t a possibility.

So the current reality has to change. Seriously. It is time for us all to stop being bewildered and uncertain, and make some real moves. It is time to make schools safe zones for inspired learning and investigation of the world, even more so than they were before.

Where do we start?

I am all for gun control. Regulation, licensing, background checks: yes, yes and yes. And then some. The Second Amendment was not written in the era of rapid-fire weaponry. If you want to debate gun rights with me, an admitted pacifist who you might feel justified in dismissing, I refer you to the Houston police chief, Art Acevedo, who said, “I know some have strong feelings about gun rights, but I want you to know I’ve hit rock bottom and I am not interested in your views as it pertains to this issue.”

Of course, as a person who has stated publicly I am a dedicated and engaged listener, I need to find a way to work through my feelings and come back to listening. But I’m not there yet.

But I actually don’t want to talk about gun control. I state my position to maintain honesty and transparency, but I want to talk about other things that can be done. Not instead of, but in addition to. One major piece is the structure of the school itself.

For the most part, schools are big. Really big. Even here in Maine. There is a continuing move to consolidate smaller schools in the name of budget efficiency, even as study after study confirms what common sense dictates: that smaller class size yields better results. We know this. We know that smaller classes increase learning, comprehension and a sense of connection. It might well be that last part that is the real key to a healthy school, and all our kids coming home at the end of the day. With smaller classes, teachers know the kids, kids know their peers, and there is less isolation.

In his book “The Tipping Point,” Malcolm Gladwell explores the concept of 150 as the maximum number of people possible to maintain a sense of community. There are class sizes larger than that. Leaning on what we know to be true through both personal observation and structured scientific study, this is deeply problematic. We have big issues to tackle, and before we can make any sort of real headway, we must establish baseline connections and relationships. And this requires smaller schools.

We need to return to the concept of community schools. Where we have a consolidated region, return the structure to individual communities. Where we have a large city, build many more and smaller buildings. Create community gardens on site. Integrate with senior centers. Hire more teachers and pay them decently.

Is this “efficient?” Nope. Not if you are looking at the budget in bottom-line narrow focus and ignoring the costs of additional security personnel and hardware rapidly becoming the norm. However, with a wider lens, look long term at the health of our students, our communities, our nation, and the answer is, heck yes. It is perhaps the wisest, most fiscally sound investment we can make.

I want my son and yours to come home tonight. I want our kids to grow up and become happy, loving, productive members of society who contribute with their whole selves to making a better world for us all.

Brunswick resident Heather D. Martin wants to know what’s on your mind; email her at heather@heatherdmartin.com.