Neighborhood Schools as Change Makers

Posted by Susanna Taft on

This blog was originally written as a part of a Causeway staff blog series, reflecting on "What's your education story?" Causeway is a non-profit organization that inspires and equips Chattanoogans to develop smarter solutions to the city's toughest challenges. Causeway is currently offering 10 grants of $3,000 to people with projects that address the question: "How can parents help transform public education in Chattanooga?" Native Hoosier, Susanna Taft, and shares her education story of growing up and going to school in Indianapolis.

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When we think about school, we often think of yellow buses, standardized testing, and falling asleep in study hall. But I want to share a story about how my school was more than an idle institution.

I grew up in downtown Indianapolis when there weren’t a lot of options for my siblings and me to receive a good education. My parents hated having to choose between a failing public school and a pricey private school. While I was able to find a great elementary school, as high school approached, my parents were once again faced with making the tough decision about where to send us for school. One night, my mom realized there was really only one option: she needed to start a charter school.

Everyone thought she was insane, but in her eyes, it was her duty as a mother, neighbor, and professional. For 7 years she had been the director of The Harrison Center for the Arts, an art center in our neighborhood which increasingly dealt with an artist brain drain. Her artists were moving to cities such as L.A., New York, and Chicago where the market was full of patrons to support their work. So she decided that the solution to this problem was to start a school that would create a new generation of loyal art patrons for urban Indianapolis: Herron High School.

The school was a success. Applications from all over the city rolled in, representing every type of student you could imagine. The school used the art history timeline for their curriculum and incorporated the history of the neighborhood as much as possible. Herron High School intentionally shaped school activities to reflect their values for art, history, culture, and the city itself. Students in gym class delivered newspapers for the neighborhood, art students frequently displayed their work in galleries around town, an internship program placed students at several organizations in the neighborhood, and the school even used the city bus system for transportation.

After watching the idea come to fruition, I realized that Herron High School was only successful because it was founded on the needs of the neighborhood. Previously, families in the neighborhood were moving to the suburbs so their kids could attend a good school, but after Herron started, there was another option. With the Harrison Center as an active community partner, Herron students were also taught to discover the beauty of city life and the value of art.

A successful school is an indicator of a healthy, engaged neighborhood. Are our schools engaged in a conversation with the neighborhoods they serve? Though we often think that our neighborhoods serve schools and not the other way around, it’s important to change the way we think about this relationship. Schools can and should support a neighborhood. If Herron High School was started to a create a new generation of art patrons, how can our existing schools create a new generation of students to support the present and future needs of our communities? Schools are much more than study halls and standardized tests; I believe they have extraordinary potential to be change makers.

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susana taft.jpeg Susanna Taft grew up in downtown, Indianapolis where she attended The Oaks Academy and Herron High School. She is currently a senior business major at Covenant College in Chattanooga, TN. With a heart for cities and creative communities, Susanna is pursuing a career in community development and non-profits. 

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