Thursday, June 26, 2008

Yesterday I attended the first Michigan Joint Education Conference. The conference itself was good. The presenters had useful, interesting, relevant information to share and I brought back much I can take to my classroom and implement this fall. The exhibitors were all there, with tons of freebies and information. The box lunch was pretty typical.

What struck me most about the experience though was the location. Holt High School opened its doors to the groups sponsoring the event. Never before has the divide between the have's and have not's in education been so apparent to me. A map of the facility (complex seems a more appropriate word!) gives little evidence of the lush atmosphere of this building. From the widescreen TV's mounted on the wall along the cafeteria/commons area, to the SmartBoards in each classroom, no detail was ignored when this building was built. It is simply amazing. Wide halls with beautiful lockers siding the carpeted floors, which are set up in small nook-like areas, surround courtyards full of perennials lining stone paths winding by picnic tables. Bathrooms are small, but spaced frequently. Everything is new and clean and shiny though the building has been there for several years.

Sitting in the classrooms for sessions, I was first struck by how much storage space was there for supplies. The window wall had counter height cupboards, with others above beside the huge windows, most of which looked over the courtyards areas. Another closet area was in front, with some other area in the corner. Each room's SmartBoard was projected onto by the ceiling projector. On the teacher desk's were document readers and a desktop computer and a phone that looked more complex than my laptop.

My own classroom is tiny in comparison to these rooms, and since I teach in the middle school, my room is nearly twice the size of most of our high school classrooms, which were built a century ago. Instead of listening to the presenters, I find myself configuring my classes in here, moving desks around into communities of learners, instead of locked into the one possible configuration that supports the needs in my own room. I fantasize about the huge whiteboards, the birds at the feeder I would hang outside those windows, the hummingbirds darting to sip nectar from their feeders.

This building is set in what no doubt was a farm field, now devastated by urban sprawl, evident by the beautiful subdivisions of homes surrounding the old one room brick schoolhouse on the corner, a reminder of days forgotten.

On the way out of the building, I noticed a room marked "Staff Lounge" and could not resist popping my head in. TWO new refrigerators, TWO new microwaves, TWO complete ranges, an entire wall of cupboards with counter space for many to work, lots of tables beckoned me in. Three custodial staff sat there on break, eager to talk and brag about their building. They told me another lounge was upstairs, and that this building houses 1700 students grades 10-12, with the 9th graders (900 of them) housed across the road in their own building.

My own school seems dingy and dirty and just simply poor in comparison, like we are the wicked step-children banished to the old, leftover, used up education.

I know that education is more than a building. I know that kids learn from teachers who care, not because a room is shiny and new. But how would my students feel if they can see this building and compare it to our small, crowded, old digs?

Why is it acceptable for some districts to have it all while others are struggling to keep their doors open? Why is it acceptable for my students to learn while a bucket collects the water dripping from the leak in the roof while Holt students watch big screens as they eat lunch? Does it bother anyone besides ME?


Anonymous said...

I'm a fellow TLNer and came upon your blog. School equity issues like the facility differences you discuss aren't popular things to address with candor, but should be at the forefront of our discussions about improving our schools. I teach in a very rural school in Alabama. Our former building, a poorly maintained 100 yr. old dilapidated structure, became the culture and attitude of the faculty and school over time. Now, we have a new building. It's not the cadillac you visited, but it's a place in which the entire community takes pride. Many changes have been taking place in our school (new leadership, great professional growth, etc.), but no change has been more effective than the facility. Because of the other changes at our school and the visitors that seem to stream in to see us, we still keep our facility "company ready" after four years. Our facility, in both cases, illustrated our attitude and goals. I don't know if all of this would have started changing without a fresh beginning in a modern facility.

Maybe a good old-fashioned spring cleaning and remodeling of a not-so-old facility can promote a community to see their school in the same light as the school you visited. But I agree, it's terribly important and impacts our attitude about teaching and learning more than we might like to admit!

Jennifer Barnett
Fayetteville High School

Anonymous said...


I'm a Holt High School graduate and you can read my response to your blog here:

annkas said...

It's unfortunate that your post was taken as a criticism of Holt, rather than a criticism of the way in which public education is currently funded. It is frustrating to listen to our "leaders" proclaim that the education of the country's youth is their highest priority, and then behave so consistently to the contrary. Don't even get me started on the costs of post-secondary education. The financial burdens being placed on young people who pursue a college degree is nothing short of criminal. Nothing is going to change until we put people in office who truly value our youth as something more than cannon fodder and act upon those beliefs.
Now, here is my perspective on working in old facility with inadequate state funding: I have attended annual MCTM conferences at Holt, and DACTM conferences at Lamphere High School which is similarly impressive, and I too have experienced facility envy. Like you, I teach at a small, rural middle school. The local economy is ag-based, but many in the community worked at the auto factories in the Detroit and Toledo areas, and are now trying to live on greatly reduced incomes because of wage reductions or factory closures. The school district has also lost families from the community due to home foreclosure. In spite of this, two years ago the community rallied around the schools and passed a millage which allowed the district to repair, update, and slap a new coat of paint on the buildings. They also passed a technology millage which has allowed us to make updates in that area. I don't know what would have happened if the millages hadn't passed. I'm not sure how much longer the schools could have stayed open if the buildings couldn't be repaired. We live in a state which has taken some hard economic hits, not only because of the declining auto industry, but also because we are a "blue" state in a "red" dominated administration.
One consolation, albeit a small one, that you can take is that you are in a district that has had to make due and be resourceful, and you are used to it. Many larger districts that have become accustomed to having deep pockets are scrambling to stay afloat financially. Howell High School, built for $70 million, closed in June 2008 (after one year) because there was no money to run the school. The current economic situation is one that every district in the state is going to have to ride out. Your district may weather it better than other districts in Michigan, because you are used to tightening your belt. Similarly, economists are predicting that Michigan will weather a recession better than many other states, because so much fat has already been trimmed. Like I said, it's a small consolation, but it's something.
One last note...I read your blog regularly and appreciate your positive comments about your students. It's so easy to lapse into only using blogs to vent about the negative aspects of teaching.

ms-teacher said...

Inequity in public education is one thing that really frustrates me. Our state is currently facing huge cuts in education - this most likely will not effect districts that have a lot in reserves or those districts where parents can step in to cover the funding gap. It will effect my district and my students. We have not recovered from the last time the state was in trouble and I doubt we will recover this time.

My students deserve to be in a classroom that does not leak and one in which they have the same access to technology accoutrements as the "rich" districts.

cossondra said...

You are so right. All students deserve equity in education, not based on the community's resources or their parents ability or willingnesss to contribute. Public education should represent equity, across the board!