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The Kinder Chronicles, Part I

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Today's word is "co-location." Simply put, it's the presence of two or more entities in one space. But I am learning that co-location in education is not so simple. It's actually pretty complicated.

After leaving the elementary classroom to earn a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction, I spent four years as a teacher educator at a public university. Now I'm teaching Kindergarten at Malcolm X Elementary School that was very nearly and irrevocably closed. We live to teach another 180 days, give or take. Now, my understanding of what occurred over the last year is spotty. Malcolm X was said to close, then it wasn't. Could it be that test scores improved dramatically? Perhaps. It might seem unbecoming for DCPS officials to close a school on the upswing. That runs counter to the narrative that only "failing" schools are threatened, not ones still brimming with vitality, which Malcolm X certainly is.

I am confident that Malcolm X's future is not necessarily tied to test scores or achievement, which is supposedly the primary metric on which a school's existence is weighed and measured. Instead, our future is in real estate. The school's previous Congress Heights location is currently being renovated. I suspect that the surrounding neighborhood is about to experience some kind of urban renaissance due to, for instance, redevelopment of St. Elizabeth's and construction of a new headquarters for Homeland Security. Soon, if not already, the old Malcolm X will become very valuable real estate, especially given its extremely close proximity to a Metro station. I start to wonder what any of this has to do with the students I teach. Perhaps someone will have to explain that to me.

So, we relocated to a temporary location at the old Anita Turner Elementary School building on Mississippi Avenue SE. This means that by the start of our formal school year, things were still being re-discovered in boxes, punctuated by an ubiquitous question, "Did [insert lost item] make it over?" My class list, after the first week, is evolving. As of this writing, I have 22 Kindergartners. I can already tell that, academically, they are as heterogeneous as a class could get. Because I've been a college professor for the last four years, in graduate school for four years prior, and a fifth grade teacher before that, I had to spend roughly $1,000 of my own cash to get ready. And if you don't believe me, I have all of the receipts.

Our little school is only one of the two entities occupying the same space, as we are now co-located with Achievement Prep Charter School. My transition from higher education to DC Public Schools was abrupt. I've only been in my school building for two weeks, one for set-up and the other for our first week back. I've only ever understood co-location from a detached, academic perspective. From within, it's actually very strange. Surreal, perhaps.

The central office decided to split our school in two, placing us on the first and third floors. Our co-locator, so to speak, is on the second. The building has one parking lot. Parking spaces for staff were apparently negotiated, and Achievement Prep "won" more spaces. As a result, we enter the school through one door, Prep enters another. On our first day of school, we lined up our classes outside according to some colorful signs helpfully affixed to the railings. But they were apparently not our signs, so an Achievement Prep staff member abruptly took them.

Among our common spaces, the most trafficked is the cafeteria. I wondered early in our set-up week if we indeed possessed separate cafeterias. We had to, because why would Achievement Prep cover all available wall space with their banners extolling hard work and banning, among other concepts, excuses? Who makes those excuses, by the way? The teachers? Students? I need to know.

Tall vertical banners belonging to the charter school greet patrons going into the lunchroom like some modern day Colossus of Rhodes Scholars. A cursory examination of the walls also reveals what colleges the employees of Achievement Prep attended. Most classroom teachers seem right out of their respective colleges as well, perhaps entering the classroom through the favored alternative program Teach for America. Now that I think about it, would it be helpful if I put my alma mater up on the wall? Which alma mater would help the most, where I received a Bachelor's, a Master's, or my Doctorate? Is the policy to put up the most recent institution attended?

Ultimately, we possess only one shared cafeteria with no signage belonging to Malcolm X. During our first official week co-existing in this space, our students sit in one half, our co-locators in the other. Trashcans were carefully labeled separately so as not to mingle our rubbish.

As I write this, I'm reminded of John Travolta in Pulp Fiction.

I mean, we've got the same stuff they've got, but it's just a little different.

Example?

All right. Well, all students wear uniforms, but the colors are different. So, our identities are clearly demarcated every time we encounter each other, in the cafeteria and on the playground. You have your students, and we have ours; you have your teachers, and we have ours. But are we not engaged in the same collective enterprise as students and teachers?

In small ways, we co-locators use different vocabularies. I neither chant nor hold my closed fist in the air before students sit down to eat, which all Achievement Prep staff does. When this display occurs in a shared space, I've noticed a few of my little ones glancing over. I'd like to know what's going through their minds. In fact, do they even notice that mention of their school in the cafeteria is entirely absent? The charter school also provides their students brain breakfasts, which constitute a math or reading packet students complete during the morning meal. I personally do not recommend this because nothing worthwhile could possibly come of it, but that's just the scholar in me talking.

I also wonder what goes through the children's minds when playground essentials are held separate. To us adults, the answer is simple. We have one school sharing the same building with another. One school pays for certain items, as does the other. These items are therefore under the ownership of their respective institutions. Malcolm X pays for everything we need to work with out students, either in the classroom or in common spaces. Nothing, as far as I can tell, is shared, even though we share the building. This must make utility bills complicated. In fact, I have a leak in the ceiling of my classroom, which caused one of the tiles to buckle and crumble to the floor. The leak is obviously coming from a pipe, I can see the water drip. Now, that leak is coming from the second floor, which is Achievement Prep's turf. Who pays for that?

The children of both schools do indeed glance at each other as they pass in their lines. And children notice everything. At some point, I am going to have to ask students what they think. I may do so next week and report back. But every teacher knows it takes just a few days for students to know what reading group they're in, the low one or high one. We think by naming them the Bluebirds and Robins is a thorough enough disguise. Yet, we continue this ridiculous masquerade. It will ultimately be important to the identities of both schools to get some clarity on how their respective students, and parents, are interpreting this colocation.

Our co-location is a struggle for the identities of two entities, not sharing the same space, but surviving separately within. Given the agenda and route of our Mayor's visit on the first day of school, I can already tell which entity will be preferred by the political class in this city. But not until I, as one of the hardworking and dedicated teachers in this building, has his say. The students and parents as well.

Typically, schools are named after natural or manmade landmarks, or historical figures and leaders. When we take a school with a certain name out of a previous building and attach it to another, can it preserve its previous identity? Is there something in its name or chosen historical figure that persists? Moreover, can it persist when fastened to another with a very different way of naming their school?

I can say with certainty that even in this early stage, the identity of a school is with its educators. The two co-locators in this instance are largely serving similar students. When parents come into our common foyer, they ask for the location of the offices of one school or the other. They either go left or right. And I have no idea at this time what these little differences will amount to over the course of the school year. I sincerely hope that one student will not feel superior to another, or one set of parents more conscientious than another because of their enrollment choices.

Two schools, two ideologies, a relatively common mission co-locating within the same building. Co-locating, co-existing, though not cooperating. Not even throwing their lunch trash in the same bins within the same room. One entity will certainly survive with its identity intact. The other will either survive independently or become absorbed. Should Malcolm X lose its right to exist, and become absorbed, they will lose me as well, because I don't want to be a part of a no-excuses, fist-pump factory.

I have some very faint sense that Malcolm X's circumstances are temporary privileges and not a fundamental right to our own existence as a neighborhood public school. This temporary existence seems more like a favor, bestowed to us out of pity by some well-to-do and well-connected benefactor. We sit and wait out our place until it no longer welcomes us. I am supremely confident, however, that we will indeed prove our equal right to exist. We will define our own identity and we will succeed in serving our students.

That is, of course, all we as educators are supposed to do.