It's the people, not the bricks

By Mark Svetz

Everybody's broke these days. People I talk to on the street, my friends and, the fact is, I'm feeling pretty badly bent, myself. Our governments – no surprise here – also seem to be broke. At the local, state and federal levels, we see deficits, higher taxes and defeated budgets. And yet, everybody's building, bonding, buying equipment.
    Now, there's a lot here to talk about: Who's in charge and whose interests are they serving? Why is it that we can't hire teachers or buy books for our libraries, but we can build new schools, firehouses and senior centers? I understand all these things are needed, like new windows on my house, but can we afford them now?

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    But really, what I want to talk about is people.  One of my first teaching jobs was in the old Nathan Hale Hotel, on Main Street in Willimantic. We had some tables and chairs, a chalk board, the lights worked and so did the bathroom. Shabby quarters for a new school, even if you count the marble floors in the bathroom! It was, despite its shabbiness,  the best community school I have ever seen, because the people involved were intelligent, passionate and committed to the community.

    In Windham, voters have just approved – by a slim margin – a bonding package for revisions to our high School that are anticipated to cost some $100 million. I have no interest in revisiting that decision; the voters spoke and that works for me. What I'm thinking about now is that I read the articles in the paper, and I'm not really sure why we need a new school. There was a lot of talk about “supporting our children,” and “it's almost 50 years old,” but very little about what exactly is wrong with the building. Basically, it seems our first response to any issue is to build something.

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    Windham has also decided to bond for a new senior center, to be built where the former Jillson movie houses were located, and for a band shell to be built on the Jillson Square Park in front of the senior center site. Many people are excited about all these projects. I think this a great location for the senior center, and we all love the music that blesses us here in Willimantic. The band shell also brings the town a donation  of $100,000 from David Foster, and town officials have said it may not need any local tax money in the end.
    We need only look up the hill at Eastern to see there has been an enormous amount of construction in the last decade or more. A little farther up the hill, UCONN is undergoing its own  “big dig” these days. And all of this at a time when Connecticut is threatening to reduce its commitment to Medicaid, leaving thousands with out health insurance they can afford, all because of the fiscal crisis we find ourselves it. We are undertaking extensive building projects at the same time we are deciding that some among us will lose their access to health care. The coexistence of these facts leads me to wonder who's at the helm of our ship of state.

    When I think about the quality of education we are providing for our children, bricks and mortar do not come to mind. In fact, it is my opinion that many of the educational problems at Windham are the result of spending too much money on things that don't translate into better teaching and learning, like buildings and excessive administration. The real problem here is that the important things, like teaching positions and books, for example, seem to get short shrift in the budgeting process.
    I had occasion to spend part of a school year as a student-teacher at Windham High in the '90s. The textbook for the history course I was assigned was more than 20 years old, and was called “Men and Nations.”  Of course this was 20 years ago, but still, Men and Nations? These are the things that we should be thinking about when we consider support for our children's education, not the bricks and tiles that make up a new school building.
    There are many really good teachers and other professionals in our area schools. I have worked in Mansfield and Windham districts, and I know from my own experience of the many fine, dedicated and passionate people who work in those systems. I'm sure it's the same in other districts. The thing I also remember from my time at Windham is that many of the teachers did not feel supported by their administration. In fact, this is true of so many of the teachers who are part of my community, they feel similarly unsupported in the districts where they work.
    One of the factors in this lack of support for our children and teachers is the decade and more we have lived with policies like “No Child Left Behind,” with its emphasis on testing and blaming school districts, including teachers. No one has seen fit to make very many changes to this misguided and disastrous program, and the educational Yellow Brick Road it has led us down. Our leaders want us to believe all we need is a new building, when in fact what we need is leadership.
    Of course, it is possible the real problem here is the money and power wielded by the construction industry. New buildings are good for that industry, and for the workers who get hired to build them, as well as for the elected officials who support these jobs. I just don't know how wise it is to confuse all this with educating our children.

 

    There is another aspect to all this building. The materials and equipment used to build a new building have disastrous environmental consequences. Disposal of building materials from demolition is filling available landfill space. We cannot stop building, but we can be more deliberate in our planning to avoid all but essantial projects. It really is the responsible thing to do.
    I work a few hours a week now at QVCC at Windham Regional Technical School, a building at least as old as Windham High, and I see several seemingly up-to-date computer labs and a “smart Board” in the media center. I know several of the teachers at Windham Tech, and they seem happy with their jobs. The school has a good reputation, from all I hear. It seems quality education here doesn't need a new building, although the staff might love it!
    My hope for the New Year is that when we think about teaching and learning, or providing programs and services for seniors or any of the other activities we do together as humans in community, we think about people, and not just bricks and mortar. People, working together, using their passion, creativity, intelligence and empathy are what these services really need. I know from experience that those people can work miracles almost anywhere if they are given the support, encouragement and respect they deserve.