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Educators Living Amongst Us

By Lisa Hill

Education begins and ends in the home. Somewhere in between, though, our children interact with teachers, students, administrators, curriculum specialists, other parents and the community as a whole. The concept of learning is global, and it literally takes a village to raise each of our children.

Imagine living in a town where neighbors look out for all the town's children, merchants participate in the education process, and teachers live just up the street from their students. This is how many generations of the past were raised. This is also now occurring in traditional neighborhood developments (TNDs) being built all across America.

Many families move to TNDs to get back to small-town America. Karen Smith, for example, moved to Celebration from Indiana to provide better opportunities for her two children. Smith's son graduated from Celebration School last year, and her daughter is currently a senior. Smith herself works at the school teaching primarily third grade students in her multi-age neighborhood.

The reason she enjoys Celebration so much is that people know one another. "You can watch out for [other people's children], and they can watch out for yours. Although children will get involved in things they shouldn't -- it is a bit more challenging," said Smith. "If they do something here in town, somebody knows who they are, and word gets back home rather quickly."

Part of the small-town feeling is developed when educators both live and work in the same community. They become stakeholders of the community and have a stronger emotional investment in nurturing their students. Not only do they teach in the classroom, they teach by example when they are out in the community. They frequently get involved in activities that are part of the everyday lives of the very students they teach.

"When I am [away from school] I try to recognize my students as members of the community," said Smith. "I don't bring up things they do at school or bring up homework or projects. School is in a different time and place, and right then we are members of the community; we are not members of the classroom."

She has found that this respect is mutual in the community. "When I go to a ball game, or if I am out to dinner downtown with my family, parents and students [say hello] but don't ask me to give them an update as to how their children are doing in school. I have appreciated that a great deal."

"We all spill into each others lives outside of school, and that's a positive thing," said Lisa Baird, new resident liaison for the school. "It's not like you work with someone and then go your separate ways at the end of the workday. People have to try a lot harder at relationships, and these relations are a lot better for our children."

In Seaside, Fla., the Seaside Neighborhood School is completely interwoven with the fabric of its community. Students take physical education classes on the Lyceum, the open area in the center of downtown Seaside, as well as on the close-by Gulf of Mexico beach. They eat lunch every day -- weather permitting -- outdoors on a tented deck adjacent to the Lyceum. And they swim, play tennis and learn croquet, at the Seaside Swim & Tennis Club.

The school's first building was actually paid for by the community. When Paramount Pictures made The Truman Show there in 1996, Seaside founders Robert and Daryl Davis and the Town Council of Seaside homeowners donated all film location fees to the construction of a new schoolhouse.
The school shares its second building with the Seaside Institute (see "People Who Make a Difference," page 6). The two are very friendly neighbors.

"They are very supportive of us," said Shirley Foster, principal at the Seaside Neighborhood School since June. "When the Institute has guest performers and concerts, [they] will call and say these people will be performing Friday night and -- could do something at the school Friday morning if we're interested."

Even students who live outside Seaside reap the educational and rich quality of life benefits of the area. Students at the school are immersed in the community; they are part of much of what goes on and are able to see the positive things that come of maximizing connectivity.

Loree Zimmerman Dykstra, an elementary school teacher living and working in Kentlands, Md., has taught school in a variety of locations all over the country. She feels the biggest benefit to working and living in the same neighborhood is the ability to see a more complete picture of her students.

"I gain a lot by watching how the kids communicate with others outside of the classroom," said Dykstra. "The other day I was outside with my dog and a few of 'my kids' came by on their scooters. I ended up getting mine, and we took a ride around the neighborhood."

The next day at school, though, it was back to business as usual. "They respect the difference between me as the teacher and me as the neighbor," she explained.

Dykstra feels the teacher/neighbor her students know results in a greater feeling of security with the kids. These bonds, she believes, facilitate the education process. "I have a bigger impact on them," she said confidently.

Dykstra also loves the convenience of being around the corner from her workplace. She starts her morning at the town center coffee shop, where she usually sees a number of her students' parents (past and present). Then it is on to school, sometimes several hours before the kids arrive. "I don't have that wasted commute time to deal with," she said. "I put that time back into my work."

The goal of integrating education into the community is the reason town planners give the school prominent placement in the town design. Better schools and innovative educational opportunities sell homes, so it is crucial that new schools being built are state-of-the-art and offer the best in educational opportunities. These same advantages are the very things that attract teachers to the school and the community. And the range of housing options allows them to live there.

Note: The Town Paper editor Diane Dorney and staff writer Karen O'Keefe contributed to this report.