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Columbia neighborhood centers key to city's values

Our family was shocked at the news that the Board of Directors at the Columbia Association (CA), the managing organization of Columbia, Md., had received a proposal to close more than half of all neighborhood centers. This news only came to our attention because our oldest son attends a preschool in one of those neighborhood centers.

Until we heard about the possible impact on his school, we weren’t paying much attention to the potential changes facing Columbia. Until now, our understanding of this town’s values were basically limited to symbols like the “People Tree,” which CA describes as an artistic representation of the town’s “goal to create an environment that contributes to the growth of people and foster community spirit,” and its reputation as a progressive community of inclusion. Such social justice values, as well as the more complex reality of Columbia, informed an integral part of my husband’s childhood — he grew up here — and of my experience as a recent transplant. The perceived values of Columbia are what we want to color the childhood of our small children.

The proposal to close the neighborhood centers comes from the CA’s director of open space and facilities services, and the rationale for it is clear: Many of these centers date back to the 1970s and require costly renovation. Rather than renovate based on their current use, the proposal reports that it would be cheaper to close most of the neighborhood centers and/or to change what they are used for. If this proposal is approved and these neighborhood centers close — or if the intended use of the building is not what is best for the people — it would signal a departure from the core of what Columbia symbolizes and from what the city’s founder, James Rouse, intended.

Like any parents, we deeply love our son and want him to thrive in his preschool. He had social and emotional struggles at his first — expensive and corporate — preschool that were never adequately addressed by his teachers. We were encouraged to think that his reactions were normal, and we went against our instincts as we listened to the teachers but not to our son. Fortunately we hit a breaking-point, and in our search found a cooperative preschool in a Columbia neighborhood center. Within a day of starting, we — and most importantly he — felt better. Due to the responsive, warm and wise efforts of his new teachers, and the supportive community of parents and families that actively create the preschool, our son is learning that he is truly cared for at school. As a social worker and researcher, my husband and I know that this lesson will help support him throughout his life.

Due to our professions, we also know what the research says about early childhood education and care: Quality and accessibility matter. High-quality preschool education impacts the long-term success of children in school, which then impacts their life-long trajectory. This fact can contribute to social inequalities if the cost of that education is too high, or if there aren’t enough low-cost and high-quality preschools. If these neighborhood centers close, several cooperative preschools like our son’s could be closed, as well as several other daycare centers and a Montessori school.

Losing neighborhood centers means losing quality and accessible early childhood education and care centers, but also much more. Several centers offer community programs, such as summer camps and after-school programs. Many are used by local organizations for events and meetings. These spaces provide an affordable option for community gatherings like baby showers and are often seen as a place for people without big houses to gather. These centers are well used and appreciated by community members and are often seen as an integral part of building and maintaining community. Closing neighborhood centers poses a risk to all of these community activities, and also to what Columbia represents.

All communities change. As we have started our family, we have seen Columbia change. While we understand that prosperity is a part of the Columbia’s principles, we also understand that change, if it is true to Rouse’s vision and Columbia’s ethics, should not benefit a few at the cost of many. A quick online search for "Columbia MD guiding principles" reveals the original four values envisioned by the founder for Columbia: build a city, respect the land, provide growth for the people and make a profit.

The CA board will meet Thursday to discuss the proposal regarding the neighborhood center closures. I hope they will take into account all of Columbia’s principles and find a way to integrate prosperity with growth for the people — for all people. Our son’s future, and the future of Columbia, depend on it.

Morgan Pardue-Kim (morgan.v.pardue@gmail.com) is a researcher, and Gilby Kim (gilbykim@gmail.com) is a social worker.

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