Elmira Heights, Church Bells, and a Stop Common Core Sign

As I sat on my little deck in my backyard after work yesterday, I found myself looking forward to the 6:00 hour. My dog had just rested her head on my knee, looking for a good ear scratch, and my husband had just lit the Weber grill.  But at 6:00 every day something magical happens in my small town of Elmira Heights, New York.  Church bells emanate from the Methodist church a block from my house.  They are lovely and while it is true that they are prerecorded – not the old fashioned bells produced by bell ringers of yesteryear – they are lovely and always remind me of Thorton Wilder’s play “Our Town” and why I love living in a small town.  I am new to Elmira Heights. I have become friends with several of my neighbors.  While we are very different in some respects, we share a common bond in that we enjoy living in our little community and going about our lives doing those things people do to make our lives enjoyable and meaningful, like cutting our grass, planting petunias and impatiens in the summer, grilling outdoors, and watching the neighborhood kids playing and walking up and down the streets of our neighborhood.  I can say with all honesty that when I bought my old house, a house in much need of love and repair, I didn’t just buy a house, I bought a neighborhood and a community.


Parents I speak to in Elmira Heights like their local schools.  They like the principals, the teachers, and the school buildings.  In the morning I often see dads and moms walking their young children to school and in the afternoon I see the promenade in reverse.  A few months ago, a sign appeared in one of my neighbor’s front yard.  It’s pencil yellow with bold black words simply stating, “Stop Common Core.”  I haven’t formally met these neighbors yet, but I do see them outside regularly, so I know they have young children.  It’s not without irony that as they engage in their own simple form of protest I have been huddled inside my house over the past few months, using every spare minute trying to decipher the decades long political wranglings that have culminated in the Common Core and all the other education policies that accompany the standards.


I often wonder about the individual parents who are resisting the Common Core.  Are they conservatives concerned about government intervention in education?  Are they liberals fighting against the transformation of teaching and learning into days filled with standardized testing and test prep?  Or perhaps they understand that the Common Core, as a set of national standards, represents an attempt to dismantle the public school system and wrestle control of their public schools from local school boards.  Perhaps the anti-Common Core movement reflects parents’ concerns about the influence of corporations over education reform and the use of their children as capital to fatten the wallets of CEOs and venture capitalists.


As I read the growing number of blogs devoted to efforts to resist Common Core I have come to believe that the answer is somewhere in the middle and that parents on both sides of the political spectrum are uniting over their concerns about current education policies.  They speak for their children, citizens who have no vote or ability to impact education policy.  And perhaps they understand that current education policies will inevitably result in their diminished capacity to have a voice in how their schools will be governed.  Current policies are squeezing the life out of community schools.  State budgets are stretched almost to the limit, leaving local school boards no option but to either raise local taxes or find alternative ways to finance their schools.  With much of the public money being funneled into expensive testing schemes and purchasing the technology required to administer these tests, local schools districts are scrambling to maintain some kind of autonomy over how they spend what remains of their budgets.


With my book finally written and in production, I plan to get to know more of my neighbors.  One of my students enrolled in the graduate literacy program at Elmira College where I teach is starting a preschool program at the Methodist Church in my neighborhood, the one with the lovely bells.  I plan to visit her new preschool and offer her assistance and support.  She tells me that the church has a little room that serves as a museum dedicated to the church’s history and that, yes, the original church bell is still there with a bell pull still in place.  I can’t wait to see it and learn more about that old church and my community.  I plan to introduce myself to the young family who has posted the Stop Common Core sign in their front yard.  And I plan to continue in my quest to help preserve what I believe is one of America’s best institutions — our public schools.

 Deborah Duncan Owens