Letter to the Editor: Addressing the needs of the children
It has been several weeks since the voting for the bond issue for a new school. That bond issue was defeated, but one gets the feeling that, with the forming of a new committee headed by the superintendent of schools, the issue is far from dead. I consider myself a member of the "silent majority" of voters who read, listened and voiced their opinions to friends then voted. These others were and still are unorganized, but they have serious concerns about that bond issue, our public schools and the funding required to improve them. I feel the letter addressing the needs of the children was right on mark and will add to that my views of the entire situation.
1. The current school properties and buildings. The district owns the property on which all of our schools are built. They also own the buildings. The elementary schools are each located in one of the four designated voting precincts. The middle school is basically in the center of those precincts. The high school is on a nice parcel of land on the west side of town. All are within minutes of fire, police and ambulance services. The middle school has had some renovation and has not been included in previous discussions for replacement or renovation that I know of. It has had new windows all around. Our high school is a good one structurally. Renovation has been done nearly every year to keep that school in good condition. A part of the defeated bond issue involved the addition of a new building to the high school for science and math studies. That is a very reasonable proposal. It has been some time since any renovations have been made to any of the four elementary schools. The building of a new school has been on the back burner of some minds for the past four bond issue votes which may be the reason nothing has been done to improve them. That's an interesting concept, isn't it?
2. What can be done with these buildings? The high school basically needs nothing but the new building. BMS is the only one with no immediate surrounding property, but within the block, the district owns a building. There are two vacant buildings and two or three houses in that same block. It would be possible, with negotiation, for this land to be acquired for expansion of the school and building of additions. The land across Odell Street could continue to be used as it is now.
There is enough land around each elementary school for development, reconstruction and/or additions. It would be possible to reuse some of the materials in the current schools. It's called recycling. The ages of the elementary schools has been discussed thoroughly over the past several years. It is strange that no major improvements have been made to any of these schools although it is said that there are major problems in each one. The last four bond issues have pointed out the conditions and suggested the only way to fix them is to build a new school. More than one location has been on the board. You know where we are now with regard to this.
3. The funding of new/renovated buildings; The cost to make these renovations or replacements would not be nearly as much as a proposed new school. For sure there would be no need or a perpetual bond. The schools could be worked on one or two at a time without a bond issue if the financing was handled correctly. If there had to be bond issues, these could be short term. Our school system is not in dire financial straits. It would help if the land on the north city limits was sold and the monies applied toward this proposed venture. There are places available now that could accommodate classes as schools were being rebuilt, so placement of classes would not be a problem.
4. What is some of the history. There was a time when grades one to six were housed in the same school in each of the four districts. There was advantage to having siblings going to school together. Parents could pick up their children with one stop. Families were not divided. This kept elementary students within driving distance for parents. Students could walk or be transported as a family or group together with other students going the same way. There was an element of safety for all of these students. With elementary grades in the same building, gifted students and those needing help was accommodated without stigma. Students knew all the staff at the school and were more comfortable as they move through the grades.
5. How did the system come to change. Suddenly, the provision of books and materials and the stress of teachers being able to share grade information became an issue. That is when the school board developed the system that is currently in place. With all the students in one grade in the same school, resources could be consolidated. Teachers could plan together. Each of the four elementary schools would house one grade and a kindergarten. The fifth grade would be moved to the middle school. This was the basic rational. There were meetings with the public to discuss the changes and get their input, but it was soon clear that the decision had already been made. There was no vote of the people. At the beginning of the next school year, the changes were made.
This brought about the bussing of students from a point near their residence to their assigned school. Students of all ages had to travel in this way unless they were taken to school by a parent or friend. Some students have to transfer busses to make complete trips. Some students board the bus very early in the morning, and are on the bus for a long time after school. These are students who live in town. This system cannot help but be a trial to very young students. Included in this scenario is the stress of parents who are making the rounds to pick up their children in a timely manner. Students are attended to until their parents arrive which is a good thing. But, if the grades were in one school in each district, this would be unnecessary.
When considering in-town busing, we need to look at the bus situation.
New buses were purchased. The increased number of buses were not in use. The bus lot is on the north side of town and there has been vandalism to the buses on more than one occasion. Repairs cost money and we know where that comes from.
6. The effect of this proposal on teachers and materials. The district now allows early release on Wednesdays for teacher preparation, meetings, etc. The preparation of lesson plans is completed and copies are run during this time. Teachers sometimes travel to a central location for in-services. There would be no reason for this to be discontinued. It might be allowed that the early release time be made earlier yet still get credit for a full day attendance. This is done now for bad weather as school can be dismissed at 1 p.m. It would be easier for our teachers to get around town for meetings and sharing than it is to bus hundreds of students around town. Teachers of special services already go from school to school, so this would not need to change. Libraries could be assigned in much the same way as they are now. It is a fact that electronics and new teaching tools are taking over the classrooms. Books and printed materials are still used in some instances, but not to the extent they once were. As schools are updated, the newest teaching resources would be included. Grading and generating report cards are no longer done by hand. Parents can log onto school computers to keep abreast of student progress and communicate with teachers as needed. This is being done in other schools, why not here?
7. Miscellaneous considerations. A) A part of the configuration of the elementary schools should include moving the fifth grade back to that setting. Those students are not yet ready for transition to middle schools and changing classes. I will not go into this very much, but I think it is a good idea. B) As we are in tornado alley, it would be a good idea to include storm shelters in each of the schools. We have seen lately what devastation occurs when a tornado hits a school. The children are the center of our schools. They should be protected. C) The district has hired architects to draw plans for at least two of the new schools that have been proposed. This is not cheap. I suggest that we take advantage of the universities in our area. Seniors are needing projects for their last grades. Why couldn't we open a contest to those students for the plans for each school and have as the prize their names on the dedication plaque? These plans would be monitored by professors and subject to the approval of the board. C) There are now virtual schools and parents who home school. How many of our students have left public school to enter these alternatives? Is this a change we can reverse or is this a trend for the future? I don't have answers for that but some consideration should be given as we look at new schools. D) Before any new school locations are decided, it would do well to look at the total town of Marshall. I have lived here my entire life and know that there are not more major businesses than there were five years ago. That doesn't mean the town is worse than it once was. It means to me that the town is not growing by leaps and bounds or even steadily. School placement should reflect the growth and abilities of the town.
Not long ago there was a list of honor roll students in the paper from middle to high school in the paper. It was a lengthy list. Did the condition of the school effect the student's performance? It doesn't seem so. Students will learn wherever they are as long as there are dedicated teachers engaged in the process. We have those teachers and we have those schools. They just need some help. The parents of school children must be considered when one is discussing taxes, busing, location, etc. Those persons with rental properties must also be considered. The citizens who own property but do not have children in school must be considered. If meetings are held to discuss any of these options, it will be important to listen to everyone and utilize their input before decisions are made.
It is important to make sure that we can support what we do without putting ourselves, our children and our children's children in debt perpetually, make getting our children to school as safely as possible, and at the same time provide quality education. Thank you for letting me have my say.
--Della Newman, retired teacher