Monday, December 04, 2006

What Can Grounds Do For You?

I teach at one of the best elementary schools in Washington State.

Our building is only three years old, and it’s still got that new-school smell going for it. Our old campus was four different buildings joined together by a series of breezeways, but now we’re all under one roof and it’s helped our cohesion as a staff. We have a lunchroom, where formerly we ate in the classrooms, along with beautiful, dedicated rooms for art, music, and band. The gymnasium would be the pride of many small towns, and we’re only a Pre-6 building. The library has a great open layout, 14 dedicated computers, and access to a courtyard where the kids can go and read.

Then there’s the technology. 2 networked computer labs with 30 computers each and a projector unit for whole-class demonstrations. One of the computer labs has a SmartBoard interactive whiteboard system, as does every classroom grades 3 through 6 and the library. Nearly every classroom K through 6 has at least 4 computers, but many have more thanks to the good work of our tech guy, a full-time employee who does nothing but take care of computer issues all day long. Also in every classroom is a video projector attached to an Elmo document display system, which is so much better than an overhead it’s not even funny. Just recently our principal put in a wireless network, which is nice because all the teachers also have laptops that they can use. The central printer in the office is also on the network, so if I make a work sheet on my computer I don’t have to print one copy then run down to make 30 more; I just send the number I need to the printer, walk down, and pick them up. It’s very nice.

The classrooms were thought out well, with ample storage space, whiteboards on multiple walls, and a dedicated teacher area. We’ve got a set of drawers in every room that’s oversized, for putting posters in, and most of the big storage units are on wheels so we can move them around as we (the teachers, who actually use the rooms) see fit. I’ve got a giant bank of windows in my room, important for a claustrophobe like myself, and we can also control the temperature in the room with controls that really work!

We also have room. Our contract holds the line at 26 in the upper grades (22 in first grade!) meaning that even when the rooms reach their cap there’s still plenty of space for centers, desks, the reading circle, computers, and everything else that makes elementary education what it is. At the beginning of the year our 5th grade classes were packed at 30 kids each, but then the district hired another teacher to get the average class size down to 20. There was finally room to breathe, and you better believe it’s making a difference.

I bring this all up because of a new report from the American Federation of Teachers called Building Minds and Minding Buildings on the importance of having a good building to teach the kids in (report here, dialogue from Let's Get It Right here). Anyone who doesn’t think the building makes a difference is deluded. It sets the tone for what’s going to happen inside, and when the first thing the kids see when they come in is an orderly, clean environment, that helps to start the day the right way.

I wish the AFT well on this project, and to my friends out there who are working in buildings that just aren’t suit for what education demands today—fight the good fight, and hopefully things change. Even “legacy” buildings can be renovated in a way that preserves their historical beauty (District 81 in Spokane has done a great job with this). Where there’s the will, there’s always a way. That makes the ultimate challenge a matter of finding the will.

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