For my students, the year ended with a power outage, which resulted in school closing. It was certainly a memorable way to end the school year for all involved. Interestingly, the power outage brings out a number of issues that schools face today.
“Just raise the shades!” said one parent. A surprising number of people didn’t understand or immediately agree with the decision to close the building. Besides some disagreement, a number of students were disappointed not to be able to go on scheduled field trips or partake in end-of-the-year festivities and traditions.
First, one issue that became very clear is the fact that our school infrastructure is very aged. Racine hasn’t built a new school in almost 40 years. Could you imagine if a police officer showed up in a 1970 Ford Pinto with duct tape all over it? Several schools in Racine were built before the invention of the automobile. Imagine a firewagon coming to put out a fire or a horse-and-buggy rushing to take you to the hospital. Well, the aged infrastructure caught up to us on the last day. Power wasn’t restored until the following week.
Second, when the power goes out, so do the phones, fire alarms, and the PA system. Imagine if a child slipped in the dark stairwell and a cell phone would have to be found to call a rescue squad. Or, of all days, what if there was a fire or evacuation required. Lawsuit! The law errs on the side of safety. The simple fact of having both the fire alarm and PA system down is enough to warrant a potential school closing. Interestingly, neither existed when the school was opened in 1899.
Finally, communication was very difficult. All phone calls home to parents came from the teacher’s personal cell phones. Good thing we typically don’t pay for each individual call anymore. Fortunately, we sold enough pretzels in the past few years that I was able to purchase some high-quality walkie talkie radios so some communication could take place from around the building. The fact is that the expectations for schools, including safety and security, don’t reasonably match the funding.
With help from the PTA, school fundraising funds, and the personal resources of staff, a potentially crazy and dangerous day went fairly smoothly. Our parents were all able to pick up their children within an hour and a half of the early dismissal. No children were lost or unsafe in the shuffle. And while not all yearbooks got out or got signed and some of the traditional fun didn’t happen, all students had a memorable and safe last day this year.
As we continuously cut resources for our public schools, the more challenging it will become to find creative ways to operate our schools in a way that meets expectations of parents and our community. It is easy to assume there is fat or waste, but a closer look will show there is a lot more bone exposed. Our expectations and mandates increase over time, but we forget what it costs to accommodate. Candles and cans with strings just won’t cut it for the next time our buildings show their true age.