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Sam Chaltain Headshot

Is School Renovation Really the Change We Seek?

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OK, I realize I'm late to the game -- I was in China last week when President Obama first outlined his jobs proposal to a joint session of Congress. But as I look at it I'm wondering if anyone else has made a simple observation about his idea to renovate America's crumbling public school buildings:

Is this really the change we seek?

Don't get me wrong -- scores of schools need renovating, and lots of people need jobs, so anything that tackles both of those issues must have some merit. And yet it's odd that, at a time when we're all in search of the best ways to transition from the Industrial-Age model of schooling to an as-yet unnamed future vision (the Democratic-Age model, anyone?), we would choose to double down on the use of buildings that were designed to accommodate the needs of a bygone era.

I've been thinking about this a lot since I'll be spending the 2011-2012 school year observing three different schools -- district, charter, and private -- here in DC. The traditional neighborhood public school is housed in a traditional American school building -- first constructed in 1924. By contrast, the brand new charter school is located in a brand new office building.

At first blush, you'd think the neighborhood school would have all the advantages when it comes to its use of physical space, and its capacity to think creatively about how to create the optimal learning environment for children. And, to be sure, the building -- large, airy, and complete with playgrounds, art rooms and science labs -- does afford certain privileges and conveniences (the children at the charter school, for example, must traverse a busy street in downtown DC just to reach an outside playground). But as I watched the staff of the new charter school use the final weeks of August to transform an otherwise nondescript office floor into an engaging and attractive learning space, I realized that the absence of a traditional building was also liberating, and, ironically, providing the space for people to think more innovatively about what a modern school actually needs to look like.

This point has been made before. As Rick Hess notes in The Same Thing Over and Over, "If the schools erected over centuries past were a road map for the system of schooling that we want, the strategy of walking the same path faster and more energetically would have much to commend it. But our schools do not provide that road map. They were never intended to take us where we desire to go. Our schools are not a solid foundation for twenty-first century schooling but a rickety structure that wobbles under the weight of each new addition."

I agree with Mr. Obama when he asks rhetorically: "How can we expect our kids to do their best in places that are literally falling apart? This is America. Every child deserves a great school -- and we can give it to them, if we act now. " I also think it makes sense to make needed repairs. But as we do so, we would be wise to be more intentional in thinking about what the school buildings of tomorrow will need to look like -- and not look like -- and Mr. Obama would be wise to lead us in that process, else we move ahead blindly to renovate a sea of rickety structures that will do little more than provide cover for our ongoing efforts to succeed in a system that no longer serves our interests.