During my first year teaching, I had a Spanish student who spent nearly a month with a friend in the lunchroom, skipping his classes, until he was caught. I thought he had mono. He failed various classes and I had a few sad conversations with his desperately worried mother. Responsibility for this skipping has to be put on the student, but school overcrowding in a poor district was one culprit in the situation. Lunch began early and ran almost all day, since the small available lunchroom space restricted the number of students who could eat during any given period. The wave of incoming and outgoing crowds was enough to shield this small sophomore, visiting with his friend through the hours, as pizza smells wafted around them — while their classes went on without them. The noise level provided some protection, too, I’m sure. Making out the sound of an individual voice in that lunchroom was nearly impossible unless a listener was only a few feet away.
Poor and urban schools often have physical problems that contribute to behavioral issues. Many of these schools are old, even sometimes decrepit. The money required to repair or renovate buildings may never become available. While I regard differences in school infrastructure as one of those issues that “doesn’t matter very much” in sorting out our educational mess, I can’t duck the question of infrastructure entirely.
Infrastructure matters in subtle ways. Restrooms that are placed far from supervision encourage illicit activity, as may dead spaces behind lockers or stairwells. Schools with heavy gang activity will not lack for illicit activity. In particular, drug dealing will be happening somewhere. Student density is a key factor in bullying. When the halls are narrow and the crowd wide, students inevitably run into one another. These collisions, whether accidents or not, are sometimes taken as challenges. Fights start easily in crowded conditions, often encouraged by other students yelling, “Get him! Get him!” Adolescents love excitement. The demographic for television wrestling is heavily weighted to young men, many in public schools.
I don’t see any realistic fix for this problem. Any fixes require formidable resources that don’t currently exist. A quick pass at some numbers will help clarify my view.
In school funding, the bulk of any costs are thrown onto the local community. Tax rates vary across this state and other states. In Illinois, property tax rates vary from less than 1% to over 8%, and perversely enough those areas with the highest rates tend to have the lowest property values. Unfortunately, this fact makes perfect sense upon reflection.
Let’s say District A has $1,000,000 in taxable property. District B has $100,000 in taxable property. If we tax both districts at 5%, then district A will pay $50,000. District B will pay $5,000. We can tax district A at a much lower rate than district B and still get more money for our schools. If we tax District A at 2%, we collect $20,000. We have to tax District B at a rate of 20% to take in the same sum of money.
Poor districts have to pay higher percentage rates to support their schools and, even if they do so, may take in substantially less money than their wealthier neighbors. The state and federal government will fill in some gaps, but will not equalize the situation. Let’s look at this in practical terms: Given that we are already taking a chunk of change from District B when we take 5% — which is one dollar for every twenty – how cooperative will the districts’ voters be when we threaten to further raise their taxes? In practical terms, the money may simply not be there. If we must raise property taxes to 17% to get enough money to build a new school, that school will never be built. Needed repairs and upgrades will also be postponed. The hallways will become more crowded and we will begin to look for creative solutions to our problems. Some teachers will roam from classroom to classroom because there are more teachers than rooms. Some teachers will share a classroom, even teaching classes at the same time in that one room. Some teachers will be stuffed in supply rooms or large closets, usually special education or bilingual teachers because of their smaller classes.
These adaptations, while suboptimal, do not necessarily capsize teaching efforts. I did some of my best teaching in a converted supply room one year. The many gouges on my walls in my last school were immediately covered with cheery posters and other art. I always keep a bright, fun classroom and I can make just about any room welcoming. If I have to cover almost all the walls with posters and fresh colored paper, I will pull out the trusty stickem stuff, or my glue gun if I am working with concrete.
Still, in this time of test craziness, infrastructure does not hit the radar nearly enough. Old schools often do not have air conditioning and may have very uneven heating. That last school with the gouges on the wall was frequently in the eighties and above in fall and spring. In the winter, classrooms might fall to 55 degrees. I guarantee this affects instruction and learning.
This is a point that never seems to come up when people are castigating the teachers in these old buildings because test scores did not climb high enough.