Duluth school buildings no longer second-rateDuluthians, kicking and screaming, have brought their schools far beyond just adequate. That’s awesome. And amazing.
By: Pete Langr, for the Duluth Budgeteer News
Last Saturday afternoon, the Duluth Public Schools held open house at three elementary schools and two high schools, all of them newly built or dramatically renovated to be modern and highly functional educational spaces.
The crowds at East were impressive. The parking lot was full. Hallways were well traveled. Duluthians finally had a chance to see what they’ve bought.
If visitors were disappointed, it wasn’t evident. Instead, school board member Judy Seliga-Punyko, standing in the commons area, indicated that the response to the new building was “’Thank you,’ a lot. Senior citizens, parents, there’s a lot of excitement and awe.”
In reinforcement of that point, a woman leaned over from the overlooking second-floor hallway and shouted down to an acquaintance, “Isn’t this awesome. This is amazing.”
Up until this year, “high quality Duluth school facilities” was often an oxymoron, so maybe “awesome” is an appropriate description for these new buildings. As for me, I never needed “awesome” or “amazing.” I just wanted high quality, and that seems to be what we’ve got.
Several years ago, at the height of the Red Plan controversy, I listened from a distance as a group of middle school girls passionately discussed the upcoming changes. That discussion echoed the citywide controversy, particularly over the closing of Central High School.
One girl, a soccer player who routinely traveled to facilities in the Twin Cities suburbs, ended the conversation when she raised her voice and emphatically spoke her piece. Her position was clear. She didn’t much care how it got done, but she wanted to have what she had seen kids have elsewhere.
Throughout the Red Plan controversy, I often wondered why that was so problematic in Duluth. I often wondered why we wouldn’t give that girl the best. Instead, for years, Duluthians were regaled with a multitude of alter-native plans ostensibly designed to save money, by preserving outdated schools.
We were told, despite voluminous research evidence, that the quality of school buildings isn’t important to school achievement. School board candidate Tom Kasper wrote that “Well-supported teachers educate students, not buildings.” Red Plan critic Marcia Stromgren told us she wasn’t in support of a plan that “builds buildings but doesn’t take into consideration students, teachers and programs.” We were told that “educationally adequate” was good enough.
But visiting the new schools puts that into perspective.
At East on Saturday, chemistry teacher Cindy Grindy, showing off her new lab space, spread her arms about half the length of a lab table, maybe 2½ feet, and said “Two kids (in the old school) would work here, and now they have this,” as she stretched her arms the length of the new space, about five feet. (In the old school) “the kid’s butts rubbed up against each other.”
She then took visitors to the front of the room, where she demonstrated how she had already used her new SMART Board during lab to rapidly transfer raw student data, first to a chart and then to a graph, which could lead to a class discussion. That new process saves class time, decreases classroom tedium, and allows for a deeper look at results.
To me, that lab space and technology looks like Kasper’s well-supported teacher, which Kasper implied a building could not do. To me, that looks like taking into consideration students, teachers and programs, as Stromgren said it didn’t. To me, that looks a whole lot better than “educationally adequate.”
But that’s just one classroom, one teacher, and one short conversation. There were other teachers, and other classrooms. There were people noticing the gym, the theater, the added functionality of the spaces, the added security. And there are five of these high-quality buildings opening up this year, and more to follow.
These five schools are one more signal that Duluth is becoming a city that can, rather than a city that sits in the past, paralyzed by its difficulties.
That middle school girl didn’t want adequate, she wanted competitive and high-quality. Although she doesn’t have her athletic field yet (it’s still under construction), in every other respect she has the facilities which will give our students the same opportunities kids have elsewhere.
Duluthians, kicking and screaming, have brought their schools far beyond just adequate. That’s awesome. And amazing.
Budgeteer columnist Pete Langr writes every other week in the Budgeteer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.