Pardon Your Humble Blogger, but she feels a rant coming on. During my career I’ve had reason to visit a depressingly high number of prisons throughout this country and in the developing world.
It’s always a rattling experience for multiple reasons, not the least of which is the odd sensation of spending time in a space designed without even a passing nod toward human dignity, comfort or the wider world outside.
To get in and out of most, you pass through one set of security doors that must lock shut before the next can open. On one side, people matter. On the other, people matter only insofar as they are to be kept confined.
Since school let out I’ve had occasion to visit several high schools located in tough inner-city neighborhoods to talk about the year that was and the years that will be — or years that might be if the Ebenezer Scrooges out there are visited by the Spirit of Even More Dickensian School Years to Come.
Dark, ugly and rundown
Without halls choked with kids passing from class to class, without slamming lockers and teachers lassoing miscreants, it’s painfully apparent that there are some high schools hereabouts that are stys. Dark, ugly, rundown stys.
Granted, in the summer the sad walls are stripped of student artwork, and custodial crews are less present. Still.
The problem, in my experience, does not extend to elementary schools, which tend to be small and cheerful. Nor are we talking about the age of the buildings. Over the years we’ve closed any number of old but lovely schools that had big windows and more intimate scales.
Lost in a sprawling building the other day, I tried a door in desperation and ended up locked — literally — in a weedy courtyard. I kid you not, I called district HQ for help. In the next, I made a point of asking for an escort out.
“I know,” my teacher tour guide said as she helped me get out of the windowless labyrinth where she works. “It’s like a prison cafeteria.”
Honestly, Dear Reader, it was worse. Compounding the squalor, in this particular building each sad wing had its own particular stink, ranging from sewage to chemical vapors. Add to this a bizarre airplane engine hum that most certainly was not an air conditioning system — A/C would have mitigated the smells — and what you’ve got is a headache chamber.
Why does this matter? It matters because kids are particularly susceptible to assigning things the value others appear to have placed on it. What we’re communicating here is that they really don’t have much.
True story: Several years ago when St. Paul Public Schools revamped their food program, which is now very, very good, they held focus groups with kids. What they learned was that students perceived school lunch as artificial, the bottom of the food chain — quite literally.
The new food is better, but the culinary folks also go to pains to tell kids it’s better. Dishes have names, like on menus, and descriptions of tasty-sounding ingredients. St. Croix River Valley Honeycrisp apple sounds better than Fruit Cup, right?
These buildings scream, “Nothing important happens here — nothing worth spending on, or letting the sun shine in on.”
Noble efforts, ugly surroundings
Nor do they feel like dignified workplaces. Yet we expect teachers and paraprofessionals and instructional leaders to show up every day and emanate optimism, pride and confidence.
I don’t want to embarrass any of the educators I was calling on, because the stories in question are about noble and effective efforts and the subject of this rant is in no way their fault. This is not about the love or the dedication inside the decaying structures.
And I bet my bottom dollar if you ask them wouldn’t they like some new paint or nice new windows they’d say no thank you, but lower class sizes and a few extra-curriculars would be nice.
No, the faceless specter in this tale is going to rattle his chains and point his bony finger at you and me, Chuckles. We’re to blame. We’ve given them all a bad case of financial Stockholm Syndrome.
Speaking of Scandinavia, have you seen pictures of Finland’s schools? Or for that matter, the headquarters of pretty much any Fortune 500 company? They believe environment matters.
Surely in this outcomes-focused era, when we are designing data systems linking everything from arts education to teacher training to student performance, someone can measure the correlation between productivity and pleasant surroundings. I mean, we know that when you tell students they matter, they achieve more.
The downside? We might have to find new jobs for some of those prison architects.