Page 7


So life in the suburbs lacks one of the most effective grounds for teaching the key ingredient to a democracy, the trust. Because on a city street, people learn from having other people, even strangers, take responsibility for themand that they must assume some of responsibility for others. IN THIS ERA of ever-increasing suburbanization, we need to find a new means of creating community. And here again, it behooves us to look to northern Italy, where people come together out of shared interests. And education, wanting our children to realize their potential, is one interest in which we can easily see our common ground. Especially if we perceive ourselves as being responsible for the shape of our children’s education, a perception that is becoming a necessity as government is losing its ability to take care of education for us. It’s interesting to consider how much we have expected and depended upon government to educate our childrena dependence that can be traced back to Horace Mann, but that’s another article. Perhaps the crisis in funding and curriculum presents an opportunity for “local transformation,” and I’d like to consider the northern Italian model. The model of the co-operative. I didn’t set out to find a co-operative for my son’s pre-school. When I signed him up at the All Austin Co-operative Nursery School, I didn’t know what I was getting into, but by the end of the first week I had serious misgivings. Not only did parents have to take turns working in the classroom twice a month as the “helping parent,” we also had to clean the classroom after school and fulfill the responsibilities of a support job. This wasn’t what I’d had in mind. I wanted the school to take care of my child for me, and while All Austin was certainly doing that well, it was asking more of me than I was interested in giving. So I began looking around for options that didn’t involve so much time from me. The differences quickly became evident. With each other school I visited, I understood more the unique qualities of a co-operative. The ratios between students and teacher were smaller, 8-to-2 for the twoyear-olds. The staff is, if not the best, among the best in town, several teachers having won coveted awards. The classrooms at the co-op are lively yet orderly, bright and engaging. They feel safe and intimate, more like a home than an institution. The playgrounds are inviting, interesting, varied, yet safe. The most important difference, though, is the feeling of family. Everyone knows my son and me and cares about us. I can entrust him to any of them; they entrust their children With lire, I trust the decisions of the board, made up of other parents and the staff. There are trying aspects of the fact that the parents make up the board. Meetings sometimes seem endless as people want to discuss endlessly seemingly trivial details. How should we pay our newly created janitorial position? Should we pay the janitor a wage that includes FICA or not? Should the class schedule for four-year-olds be three and a half hours or four? The process is slow. Some changes have taken two to three years to happen. Yet when they are instituted, everyone feels right about them. Everyone is invested in ensuring that the changes work. ANOT SO SMALL coincidence presented itself to me while reading Putnam’s book. The staff of All Austin has a strong interest in the early childhood educational system in one of northern Italy’s most successful regions, Emilia-Romagna. The infant-toddler centers and the pre-primary schools of ReggioEmilia, a municipality of 150,000 people, have been creating completely new standards for preschoolers’ education. And I don’t think it a coincidence that an essential aspect of the Reggio-Emilia approach is what they call “community-based management,” a philosophical ideal that requires the working involvement of parents, townspeople and teachers in shaping the schools. The entire town co-operates and collaborates. The one drawback of All Austin’s mode of co-operation is that it isn’t very practical for families in which both parents work, as it is only half-time and requires extensive parent involvement during working hours. Reggio-Emilia has found a way to accommodate such limitations without abandoning the co-operative process that made the school successful. The schools made parents and teachers equal partnersby requiring them to observe and evaluate children’s growth and development in the home and at school, dissolving the boundary between the two places. There is a continuum, as both teacher and parent are aware of the child’s other part of the day. The program has many strategies to enrich the exchange between parents and teachers, all of which create a sense of an extended family. A child stays with the same teacher for three years. This continuity allows enough time for a relationship between parent and teacher to growfor the child’s advantage. Parents and teachers meet regularly to discuss the child’s progress and goals and to share what the teacher has recorded of the child’s participation in classroom projects. The children take on projects of their own and teachers document the progress of these projects, not only by keeping the children’s art work, which the program considers a “graphic language,” but by recording what the children say. There are different occasions for parents and teachers to become familiar with one another. At meetings they discuss particular issues or needs for various age groups in the school, or broader topics, like diet, books or sexuality. Workshops teach techniques with educational potential such as origami, puppets or photography. The entire school gets together for field trips or holidays. Community-based management also requires that each school have a school-city board, which is called an Advisory Council. These positions are elected, and a typical example is one in which 19 members are parents, 13 are educators and seven are townspeople. One in three of the municipality’s families have served on the council, and participation in the elections is around 70 percent. That Reggio-Emilia is a vastly different place from ours is revealed immediately in the fact that 12 percent of the annual city budget is allocated to the preschool and infant/toddler program and in its philosophy that every child, regardless of financial resources or situation, is entitled to an excellent early education. Program fees are set on a sliding scale and the maximum fee for full-time infant care is less than $150 per month U.S. equivalent. But we do not need to wait for our culture to value children more before we begin to collaborate for their benefit. ReggioEmilia was not initiated by government. A group of individuals began the first school after World War II. The founder of the program, Loris Malaguzzi, describes the scene he came upon after hearing that a school was being built: “I find women intent on salvaging and washing pieces of brick. The people had gotten together and had decided that the money to begin the construction would come from the sale of an abandoned wartank, a few trucks, and some horses left behind by the Germans. ‘The rest will come,’ they say to me.” These people were farmers and workers. They came out of unions and co-operatives, after having “survived a hundred war horfors,” and sacrificed even more to create a new future for their children. The people of Reggio-Emilia will be the first to tell you that their co-operation is not easy, but that it shouldn’t be. The nature of co-operation is complicated and slow, subject to constant evolution. It seems our best hope, and according to Putnam, our only hope of maintaining our democracy. Though we are constantly told resources are shrinking, we can come up with more than six horses and a tank. The important thing is that we connect with one another and collaborate. E] 18 ittitg 30 ; 1995