My Turn: Invest in teachers, not buildings

Posted: Monday, October 06, 2003

School. Education. Learning. We all know what those words mean. They draw on memories and create pictures for us. Are those pictures of buildings? Is that what you remember of your school days? Or do you see your best friend, the game that you won and made you cry for joy, that time you performed on stage and applause filled your ears, the teacher who helped you understand geometry or let you build that incredible volcano?

Schools are not simply buildings with materials in them. Schools are living, growing webs of people forming relationships and learning. I work at Juneau-Douglas High School, so my students are all young adults. They are members of our community with strong opinions and real concerns. When they talk about their education they rarely mention crowding in the same vein as the outsiders to the building.

Visitors, including policy makers, are usually amazed at the swell and tide of the masses during class transitions. Crowding in the hallways is an issue, but crowding in the classrooms and availability of classes are bigger concerns to my students. There are many rooms where only 33 desks will fit, so student 34 and 35 aren't promised a desk. Usually attendance issues keep all from needing to cram in the room at once.

My students are concerned about the lack of availability of classes. Academic classes are capped at 32 students with the minimum of 25 enrolled. We have dropped a number of special classes due to not having 25 students committed to taking Advanced Placement Government or American Sign Language. But, shouldn't 15 willing students have the opportunity to learn and be challenged? How about 10 unwilling students who desperately need skills to succeed in math or reading? Now they are all in large sections with little time for individual attention.

Each period of the day a couple of hundred of the 1,600 JDHS students are assigned "off-campus" because we do not have teachers to place them with. If you are not originally assigned within the limit, or even if the teacher is able to put the 36 students in a class, many students must wait a couple of semesters to take electives they must have to graduate. If sections are full you are assigned "off-campus" or study hall.

The number of available electives has dramatically dropped in the last 10 years. The past five years we have had a steady decline in enrollments. Reduced sections of elective classes, plugged full sections of required classes, this is the crowding that my students and I are gravely concerned about. I am especially concerned that student options and electives have become so limited. For many students the options in class offerings help keep them coming and learning.

Last year at JDHS we survived some amazing construction inconveniences to enjoy the new brighter open space, but my classroom space has not changed. I have more students then ever. They are now further away from bathrooms and water fountains, but enjoy bright communal space.

My concern and my students' questions are about our priorities in the school district. If we do not have money for teachers, what do we have money for? We are an industry that uses people to deliver and quality control our product. Learning and students are what we do. Teachers are how we do it. Yes, a new communal and community space is nice, but is it our most pressing educational need?

Instead of a second building to achieve a smaller population of students in using a space, let's look at other ways to reduce the number of students in JDHS at one time. Split shift? Extended day? Trimesters? Year-round schools? Then add a second shift of staffing. Let's double the number of teachers, not the classrooms.

Education is expensive. Staff is the prime cost of providing that. But is cutting instructional staff really the option? And what is the alternative to nurturing growing brains? We can not afford to allow your students to be just a side element of a school district. The costs of not providing an education to students today are far greater costs in the future. Our students need education. That comes from teachers, not a building.

• Sara Hannan teaches social studies at Juneau-Douglas High School.

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