Building Schools that Work

12/16/2010 12:47 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In 1902 Booker T. Washington was at the dedication of a school in the District of Columbia. The school, the Armstrong Manual Training Academy, had been founded on the academic principals of Mr. Washington's vocational and academic training schools such as the Hampton Institute and eventually the Tuskegee institute. In his address he said:

[The child] is never safe until he has been taught a trade, until he has been taught that all forms of idleness are a disgrace, and all forms of labor, whether with the head or hands, are honorable.

This philosophy of safety through education is an interesting principle. We spend a lot of money securing our students in facilities that follow rigorous security and safety standards, such as Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) but the thought that quality education and safety / security are linked might be a little dated.

My mother's family placed a great deal of stock in ones education. For them education meant liberation-- a way out of the cotton fields of south Texas. My grandmother saw education as a way to a better life for her children. In fact, three of my uncles went on to be school superintendents in south Texas. My uncle Roland Pena,of Rio Hondo, TX, takes great pride in the fact that he can look out the window of his district administration office and see the same cotton gin that loomed so significantly on the horizon when he worked the fields. Rusting and unused today,it reminds him of how far he has come and what the power of education has meant in his life.

The transformative power of education has become something of a cliche for middle class families where secondary education is pretty much taken for granted. The pride and promise felt by that first family member to complete an education is as distant a memory as the horse and buggy.

We tell our children that if they work hard and study they can grow up to be doctors and lawyers. But do they still hear the message that if they work hard and study they will grow up to be safe and secure? And more importantly, do our schools explain this principle? I believe these values are far from archaic. They may not be articulated as often as they were a century ago, but they are still relevant.

For Booker T Washington and other visionary thinkers of his time, the goal was to develop an approach to education that focused on the training of a segment of the population that was looking for freedom. Most of the time, the path to freedom involved learning a trade. Printers, tailors, carpenters and masons were in demand and students with these skills could enter the world with a certain sense of independence.

But that would prove to be just the beginning. What Washington may not have expected was that the discipline associated with these trades provided these students with an excellent foundation in the fields of engineering and science, and that it wouldn't take too long for young people to find their way not just into the trades, but into rigorous and valuable professions. The pace of change and academic advancement clicked into high gear once Washington and his peers built a solid foundation, with the result that students soon went on to recognized engineering universities such as Cornell, Drexel and MIT. That must have felt like a miracle to families who were not too many generations away from hopeless poverty and even slavery.

Are we providing the opportunity for similar miracles today? And more importantly, are our facilities structured to grow and nurture evolving, transformational education?

We have IB, AP and G&T (International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement and Gifted and Talented) but do enough of our schools cover the basics? Do they teach our children to be safe and secure?

For a while, in the late 70's and 80's the Vocational programs in high schools were looked down upon. If you couldn't make it in high school there was always VoTech. But as jobs in production and manufacturing declined, enrollment in many of these programs suffered.

In the District of Columbia one of the legacies of Booker T. Washington's program, Phelps Vocational High School, was a recognized stalwart of the school system, dating back to 1923, But by the mid '90's it was shuttered and abandoned. Students who had been trained in masonry and welding had gone on to MIT while others trained as plumbers and electricians had opened businesses of their own. Phelps had become a white elephant of a school--costly, unwieldy,and no longer useful in its original purpose.

But then, in 2005 the school district decided to reopen Phelps with a new focus on Architecture, Engineering and Construction. One of the few public schools in the country with this purpose, the renovated school building is now seen as a successful teaching resource while keeping the students warm, dry and safe. Vocational education has made a successful transition from a 19th century model to the 21st century.

In these hard economic times, where many are thankful that they have the skills necessary to hold and prosper in the competitive work environment, the value of a "practical" education is ever present. As such, school facilities that are designed to support these practical missions are of growing importance. The Phelps High School has Masonry, Welding, heavy Equipment and Architectural CADD labs. Davis Aerospace Technical High School, in Detroit Michigan, is placed at the smaller Coleman A. Young "City Airport" at the end of one of the shorter runways. And Cincinnati's School for Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA) ,the first school in the country to combine a full range of arts studies with a complete college-preparatory academic program for elementary through high school students, has the Corbett Theater integrated into the campus. Each of these elements are integral to the successful delivery of the curriculum and mission of the school. And each provides a way to enable the students to learn with their hands as well as their heads.

"Comprehensive" educational facilities are, and will remain, the mainstay of our nation's educational facility portfolio, but in order to assure that all of our students are "safe" in their future the diversity of curriculum and facilities that are tailored to support that curriculum are critical. At the Armstrong Manual Training School dedication ceremony in 1902 Mr. Washington's assertion, that it is "honorable" that a larger proportion of the educated men and women must learn to use their hands as well as their heads, is as true today as it was almost 110 years ago. The safety of our children resides in both their health and wealth / success. We design schools, or should design schools; to keep students healthy but do we design schools to allow students, all students, to be successful? Do we build schools that teach students how to work?