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Dropping Out

Anyone who's ever moved into a brand new school knows about the cool pleasure of clean, pristine walls and state-of-the-art facilities and tools. A new school is a kind of blank slate, waiting for the unique nicks and scars that will make it a real home, a

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learning place. While a whiz-bang new school may have impressive accouterments, it takes people and time for the place to acquire value and personality as home for a productive learning community. I've known many teachers who--given the opportunity to work in a sparkling new building--prefer to stay in their grubby, homey classrooms with mismatched bookcases jammed full of well-worn books and leaking beanbag chairs.


Take a look at this wonderful collection of images shot by students, illustrating what they love (or hate) about their physical surroundings in school. It's revealing, isn't it? Can you relate to the student who resents ubiquitous trophy cases in prominent spots, filled with ribbons and plaques from athletic conquests that nobody remembers?

Slate magazine, using their collaborative-thinking Hive project, is trying to reinvent the traditional classroom. Linda Perlstein:

We're inviting you to envision, and design, a new American classroom for fifth-graders. Your entries can be shovel-ready or fanciful.

Why haven't schools evolved the way museums and playgrounds and supermarkets have? No one has yet proved that better spaces mean better education. No solid research proves that student achievement is affected by physical surroundings. Many of our nation's top-performing schools are getting the job done in rectangles filled with desks.

Well, yes. But I would amend that assertion: Top-performing schools don't require beautiful, modern design or even cutting-edge technologies. But they must be clean, safe and welcoming.

The Kalamazoo Area Math and Science Center, which has a superb academic reputation and programming, meets in a school that's a century old. Visiting the school is an adventure--art nouveau wall tile, woodwork dark with old varnish and scooped-out stairs blending with what can only be described as floor-to-ceiling adaptation to modern technological learning, plus the normal detritus of high school: messy bulletin boards, whiteboards filled with mathematical symbols, lockers adorned with construction-paper posters. A bit makeshift, perhaps--but packed with evidence of learning.

Last Thursday, I served as moderator of a Candidate Forum for the State Board of Education, held at Cody High School in Detroit. I hate to say this, because a good friend is principal of an new early-high school academy housed at Cody--and I know how much she believes in her students. But the school was appalling.

I've been in a number of Detroit schools that are the nicest building in a shabby or even derelict neighborhood. But Cody was the opposite--a ill-kept, unappealing building marked by missing windows, crumbling exterior walls and general filth. The neighborhood is down at the heels, but the school is an eyesore. Trying to snag some damp paper towels to wipe off tables for the State Board candidates to sit behind, I asked a teacher where the restrooms were. She laughed. "You think that there are paper towels in the bathroom? This must be your first time at Cody."

There were a couple dozen Cody students at the Forum--all seniors, encouraged by their teacher (OK, bribed via cookies and extra credit) to attend. I sat watching them, slumped in their chairs, eying the candidates as they spoke about the democratic policy process or the importance of core knowledge. I wondered what it would be like to attend Cody, to pass armed guards in the hallway on your way out of building, walking past dysfunctional drinking fountains, broken lockers and piles of unused books and equipment. The students were the Cody's success stories--they had made it to year four--but being in the building gave ample insight into the disconnect embedded in the insulting media catchphrase "dropout factories."

Maybe dropping out of school is not about lousy teaching or low standards or lack of modern technology. Maybe the simple act of entering the building tells you, day after day, what value the world places on you and your education.

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