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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Trailer Park Education

The New York Times recently ran an article about New York City's desire to stop using trailers for classroom space. It noted:
"As of a 2012 count, about 5 million students across the United States were being housed in 280,000 trailers..."
I wish I could say I was shocked, but our nation has allowed these deplorable conditions for decades. The anti-government rhetoric that took root in the 1980s changed the way we look at public education. The poor conditions the Times noted were the conditions of much of my own public education. It was not until I spent more time looking at older school buildings and reading historical documents that I came to understand just how much we have devalued our schools.

We no longer treat schools as the civic heart of our communities. We are not paying and honoring teachers as community leaders who inspire our future leaders. The buildings where we send our children have abandoned the use of architecture to communicate the importance of knowledge. You're lucky if the roof doesn't leak.

There is nothing new about this. Decades ago, my high school classrooms had multiple buckets to catch the water that leaked through every time it rained (and it rained very often in Oregon). When I was in middle school, I took some of my classes in one of those trailers. It was dubbed "the relocatable," although it was never relocated anywhere. It stood in the same place for over 20 years after I attended the school.

That trailer was scrapped in recent years. Students no longer try to learn in that decrepit shack, but the situation has hardly improved. Rather than building a new school or a permanent extension, they merely bought a new trailer a few years ago and plopped it down on another side of the school.

This stands in stark contrast to the way America once viewed our schools. Most people can probably think of at least one grand, old school that represented a major public investment in a solid building with proud architecture. The citizens who built those schools buildings had much less comfortable lives than we have today, yet they made the sacrifice to ensure the school was solid and looked important.

As an example, consider the early years of Albany, Oregon, when it was growing quickly and promoting itself. The early civic leaders viewed public education as a key to their boosterism. An 1888 book published to attract new businesses emphasized how well they paid the teachers. It compared how many months of school they provided each year and promised they were making progress for more. The school building was a key feature.

"The public school building is a fine two-story structure with ten rooms and a basement, which, together with the play grounds, occupy a whole block situate [sic] in the very center of the city. The building is heated and furnished after the most modern and approved methods, and accommodation is afforded for 600 students. School is taught nine months in the year, the average attendance being 364 last year. The public school is graded by an excellent system, and the expenses for running the same is maintained from the public school fund of the county, and by an annual tax, so that it is free to all children living within the district."
The young city had clearly dedicated significant resources to erect a school building that was attractive and a source of pride. It was one of the limited number of pictures included in the publication. The economic development strategy was not focused on cutting taxes. Instead, they deliberately told the businesses they sought to attract that the community was committed to paying for education.

So, what do we actually save by sending our children to trailer parks to learn? Everyone has heard complaints about lower educational standards, but what do they expect? There are consequences when we choose to neglect our schools so we can pay slightly less in taxes. The buildings the children encounter when they go to school clearly communicate to them that we do not think education is very important.

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