Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Richmond’s Edifice Complex

I am a product of a public elementary, junior high and high school education. My elementary school, called by the picturesque name Public School 219, had a building that was about thirty years old. It was not air conditioned and we attended school through the last week in June. I went on to Arthur S. Somers Junior High School. Its building was also about thirty years old and was not air conditioned. I then attended Stuyvesant High School. The building was more than fifty years old and ditto on air conditioning. In those three school buildings, none of them new, I received a first-rate education that prepared me for college and then law school.

Last week, I was in Edinburgh, Scotland. On the street known as the Royal Mile was located Milton House Public School. I saw a class of students at recess enjoying the rather moderate playground. They looked none the worse for attending school in a building that is at least one-hundred years old. I assume they probably don’t need much air conditioning in Edinburgh.

Here in Richmond, things are different. We have no appreciation for old school buildings. In fact, we have a mayor who withheld funding from Richmond Public Schools because the school board was not closing our older schools fast enough. In Edinburgh, a mayor who proposed closing old school buildings would probably be run out of town. In River City we have a lot of other people who think that tearing down old schools and replacing them with new ones will automatically improve the education that our children receive. Same children, same principals, same teachers, same budget, same curricula, but if we build new school buildings the quality of the public education that we give our children will miraculously jump to world class. Or, so the belief goes.

Monday I was in Carver Elementary School. It was constructed and expanded over many years and in walking through the building it is fairly easy to see the parts of the school that were built in different years. But, I don’t see any indication that the children who are located in the newest section of the school are receiving any better educations than those who attend classes in the older parts. Today, I was in my neighborhood school, Westover Hills Elementary School. There’s a plaque in the lobby that indicates that the school was built in the mid 1950s, about the same time as my house. (I find the plaque particularly fascinating because it indicates that future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell was chairman of the Richmond School Board when the school was built.) Although Westover Hills also appears to have been built in sections at different times, there is no apparent difference in the quality of the education received by children in newer or older classrooms. I’ve been in Armstrong High School (newer) and Huguenot High School (older.) Perhaps Armstrong looks a bit better than Huguenot, but there is no evidence that Armstrong students are better educated than Huguenot students.

I must admit that I haven’t been in most of Richmond’s school buildings. There may be schools in the city that are old and poorly-maintained and that may detract from the ability of students to learn. Those school buildings need to be either repaired or replaced.

But, to close and replace school buildings merely because they are old seems a particularly American thing. In this country we don’t build anything to last. Think of our beloved City Hall right here in River City. A few months back we read all those reports of how it was falling apart and we would have to pay big bucks to repair it. The attitude of the pols and of our great metropolitan daily was “what do you expect, it’s forty years old.” Forty years old? Do we build things so poorly in Richmond that they are falling apart after only forty years?

But Maven, in Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico, they’re constantly building new schools. Don’t our children deserve new schools too?

Trusted reader, Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico counties are experiencing rapid increases in their school populations. They need new schools just to serve the many new children enrolling in their schools each year. In Richmond, our school population is shrinking. We don’t need additional schools to house new enrollment. Besides, you may not have noticed it, but Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico counties have broader tax bases to pay for these new schools than we do in the city.

Maven, the new schools will be built using City of the Future money. So, why should we object to building as many new schools as we can?

Oh, gullible reader. You’ve been misled into believing that somehow City of the Future money is free. It may serve the mayor and other pols to brag about all the recreation improvements and new schools that City of the Future has or will give us. But as Robert Heinlein put it, TANSTAAFL (There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch). The financial institutions which are providing funding for City of the Future projects are not making gifts to the city. They fully expect that their loans to the City of Richmond will be repaid with interest. So what may appear to be free school buildings or playgrounds or tennis courts are improvements that you and I, or whoever lives in Richmond in the future, will have to pay for.

Are you saying that you oppose new school buildings?

No, not at all. What I’m saying is that what goes on inside our school buildings is far more important than the buildings themselves. Our priority must be to spend money on those things that improve the quality of the education that our children receive. If there are school buildings that are so dilapidated that our children cannot possibly learn in them, we must repair those buildings or, if they are beyond repair, replace them. But we must not allow ourselves to believe that new school buildings will fix everything that ails RPS. We also need to understand that new buildings will not be free.

Maven, do children in Edinburgh really attend such an old school?

Oh, yes, dear reader. Take a look.

One more thing. I checked on the web and my elementary school, now named the Kennedy-King School, and my junior high school, now an intermediate school, are still educating children in those same buildings, now more than seventy years old. Stuyvesant High School, after educating students in the same building for nearly ninety years, has moved to a new facility.

So, Richmond, let’s show our older school buildings a little respect. And, let’s get our priorities straight. Let’s make sure that we pay our principals and teachers enough to make sure that we keep and attract the most talented people out there. Let’s make sure that our children have the technology to learn to live in the twenty-first century. Let’s make sure that all our children start school with the skills they need to succeed. Let’s all join together to make sure that Richmond Public Schools works for every child living in our city.


beth said...

Amen, Maven, Amen.

gray said...

Thank you Maven. I actually think that old historic school houses like Bellevue elementary enhance education --teaches children history and the appreciation of art and architecture. Unless we're able to afford a real architect and fine materials, we should stick with our old beautiful schools.