Change Can Be a Challenge

Money, money, money. It may not solve all the problems schools face, but its scarcity can certainly make life difficult. Bruce Norbert, principal of Prairiedale Middle School, learns that sometimes creative collaboration is the best response to a financial shoe that pinches. If a community can't afford a new school it may be able to propose solutions that cause people to rethink the meaning of educational life - but only if stakeholders buy in and authorities approve changes.

Dr. Bruce Norbert reports to the School Board on the need for a new middle school.

It is the second Tuesday of the month and that means the regular meeting of the Prairiedale School Board. Superintendent Margaret Conklin has asked Dr. Bruce Norbert, middle school principal, to address the board regarding the deteriorating conditions at the district’s sixty-year-old middle school.

Thelma Crockett, chair of the Prairiedale School Board, convenes the meeting. “The first order of business is a presentation by Dr. Norbert. Bruce?” she nods in his direction.

Dr. Norbert walks briskly to the podium. “Thank you, Mrs. Crockett.You know what I’m here to talk about?” He checks for nodding heads. “Each of you visited the middle school over the past few weeks. Most of you have had children at Prairiedale Middle School. Many of you even went there yourselves! So you know as well as I do that the school is old and worn out. We’re burst at the seams. For years we’ve talked about building a new middle school. Over the past ten years our county’s population has increased over sixteen percent, and all indicators show that this trend will continue. It’s time we acted.”

See Prairiedale County demographics below:

Many in the audience applaud. Lee Linden, a new board member, leans forward in his chair. “Dr. Norbert, I know every one of us appreciates what you’re asking for and why you’re asking for it, but I can tell you that things are tight. I can’t imagine that our taxpayers would support building a new middle school with the economy tanking.”

“Our kids deserve to attend a school where the roof doesn’t leak, Lee,” Mrs. Crockett chimes in.

“WE can’t even begin to make use of technology, our wiring is so outdated,” adds Dr. Norbert.

“I know times are tough,” Ms. Conklin observes, “But we owe it to our young people to take the matter to the public. I have faith that our community will support a bond issue to replace the middle school.”

Dr. Norbert sits down and the board members discuss the pros and cons of the proposal. After almost an hour, they agree to ask for estimates from several architectural firms. These figures will allow the board to determine the size of the bond issue that would be needed to replace Prairiedale Middle School.

Dr. Norbert meets with Superintendent Conklin regarding the lack of sufficient funds to replace the old middle school.

The headline in the Prairiedale Gazette was not the one Bruce Norbert wanted to see. Voters Reject Full Funding for New Middle School. He grabs the paper and drives over to the central office.

“So now what do we do?” Dr. Norbert says as he marches into Superintendent Conklin’s office.

“As I see it, Bruce, we’ve got several options. The voters approved Option B. Ten million dollars is better than nothing. I guess we could renovate with that money.”

“But you know the problems with the old building! Ten million will get us a new HVAC system, a roof, and some cosmetic improvements, but we need a facility that tells our kids their community believes in them. It’s embarrassing when they go to away games and see other schools.”

“Take it easy, Bruce.” The superintendent stands up and walks around her desk. “Our second option, which I’m sure you won’t like either, is to wait until the economy picks up and go back to the taxpayers.”

“We both know that could take years. Prairiedale isn’t Silicon Valley.” Dr. Norbert looks at Mrs. Conklin. “What’s the third option?”

“Well, we did get approval to spend ten million dollars. We could see what we can come up with for that amount.”

Dr. Norbert looks perplexed. “So you’re saying we should build half a school?”

“What I’m saying, Bruce, is that we should try some creative thinking. You know, outside the box.”

The Planning Committee meets to consider what to do with funds available for middle school improvement.

Superintendent Conklin forms a planning committee to consider what could be done with ten million dollars to alleviate crowding at the old middle school and also address the needs of Prairiedale’s young adolescents. The committee includes middle school teachers, parents, local business leaders, and Dr. Norbert. Rita Davis, a consultant who specializes in school design, serves as the facilitator. The committee considers whether to recommend an addition to Prairiedale Middle School or an addition to the high school, so that eighth graders could be moved to the high school.

Ernestine Thomas, a mother of an eighth grader, rolls her eyes. “We’ve got to create more room some way. Gus has to sit on the radiator in his English class. How about building a new school instead of an addition?”

Crowded conditions in the current building.

“We don’t have enough money to build a school for all 800 middle school students,” Ms. Davis says, “but we do have enough money to build a school for 400 students.”

Allen Esposito, a science teacher, looks surprised. “You’re not suggesting we divide our student population among two schools, are you? We’ve always had one middle school serving this community.”

“Of course you could build a second middle school,” Rita observes. “But you could also think about building a totally different kind of learning environment—one that students could get really excited about. One semester 400 students would attend this new facility while the other 400 students attended Prairiedale Middle School. Then they would switch.”

“Why would we want students to split the year between two schools?” asks Arthur Garcia, a business owner.

“Because we might be able to expose them to a different kind of learning experience in a new facility,” Ms. Davis suggests. “An experience they couldn’t have in the old middle school. If we could come up with a bold new design for an educational program, wouldn’t we want every middle school student to experience it?”

Mrs. Conklin stood at this point. “I’d like you all to take a look at this handout. We need to look at the assumptions that guide public schools. I’m hoping to wipe the slate clean and come up with some new ideas.”

See Dr. Conklin’s handout below:

Dr. Bruce Norbert reports to the School Board on the Planning Committee’s design for an innovative new middle school learning environment.

After more than a year of planning meetings, visits to innovative schools across the Midwest, and deliberations with state education department officials, a design for a totally unique learning environment has been developed Dr. Norbert describes the new design to the Prairiedale School Board in a special session at the high school auditorium.

Dr. Norbert begins. “What this committee, with help from Rita Davis, has come up with is a solution to our overcrowding problem that promises to reverse our dropout problem as well.”

“Do not think of the Career Opportunity and Development Center as a school. We purposely call it a center so that students will think of it as something different. We know many of our students begin to turn off to school in the eighth grade. When they come to the center for one semester during their eighth grade year, they will be coming to a place that doesn’t look like, feel like, sound like, or function like a school. I know what you’re thinking, but don’t worry. We’ve cleared everything with the state education department and paid close attention to the “Principles of Good Educational Design” they suggested we use as a guide. They will grant us waivers to do what we want to do.”

Dr. Norbert describes how the center will operate. Students will choose to participate in three projects. Projects are organized around career clusters, including media and communications, construction, environmental improvement, community safety, finance and economics, design and innovation, and artistic expression. Each project runs six weeks and involves an opportunity to apply what is learned to the solution of a real problem facing the community. For example, a student who chooses the environmental improvement project might be required to analyze a toxic spill in a local stream and propose a clean-up plan to the Water Board. Each project is designed to accommodate 30 students under the supervision of two instructors, one a regular certified teacher and the other a person from a related position in business and industry.

Student works on a project at the CODC.

As Dr. Norbert describes the Career Opportunity and Development Center, it is obvious he is pleased with the design and excited about having a chance to implement it. “We’ve broken the mold on this one,” he exclaims. “When students attend the center, it will be like entering a high-tech workplace. Each student will develop a portfolio of his or her work and store it online. No more lockers and desks. Every student has a workstation and a laptop.”

Mrs. Crockett interjects, “It certainly sounds like a wonderful place to learn. Can I enroll, too?”

“We felt we had to do something to prevent kids from being bored. Prairiedale has too many dropouts,” Dr. Norbert replies. He goes on for another ten minutes describing some of the unique features of the center’s design. There won’t be a conventional cafeteria, auditorium, media center, and gymnasium. Vendors will provide various fast food items in the central commons during the late morning and early afternoon. Students can leave their project when they come to a stopping place to get lunch. Instead of an auditorium, CODC boasts a state-of-the-art conference room. In return for access to the conference room after school, local businesses will contribute the funds to pay for the facility. Since all students will have a computer, a media center is unnecessary. As for the decision not to include a gymnasium, the center can lease land adjacent to it so that a privately-owned fitness center can be established. The school system will pay a nominal fee to let students use the facility.

Dr. Norbert concludes his presentation and takes a seat. Mrs. Crockett thanks him and indicates that a group of teachers from Prairiedale Middle School have requested an opportunity to make a few remarks. She recognizes Irwin Jones, a veteran teacher and spokesperson for the group.

“While my colleagues and I were not members of the planning committee, we are aware of what is being proposed. And I know that many of you are struck by how imaginative the proposal is. Unfortunately, my colleagues and I do not share the planning committee’s enthusiasm. We see a number of serious problems, from no library and no gymnasium to hiring uncertified teachers. One of the biggest problems concerns the new state standards. How will students meet these standards by completing projects? My guess is that the committee wants those of us who will remain at the old middle school to handle the standards. Can you imagine how students will feel about attending Prairiedale Middle School after having spent a semester having fun at the Career Opportunity and Development Center? Would you want to teach them the state standards after they had such an experience?”

See the state eighth grade educational standards below:

Superintendent Conklin hosts a small meeting to deal with several issues regarding the new middle school center.

The Career Opportunity and Development Center opens the following fall and enjoys a remarkable year. Student projects contribute to the community in many ways, ranging from the design of a food storage facility for Help the Homeless to a detailed study of traffic patterns in downtown Prairiedale. Teachers at CODC claim that they had never experienced such a rewarding year. The school garners news coverage from as far away as Chicago and is nominated for an award as the most innovative new learning environment in the country. When results on the state tests for eighth graders are received in June, Prairiedale students exceed performance expectations in every subject.

Students walking to the CODC.

Despite these achievements, the mood in Mrs. Conklin’s office is anything but upbeat. At the conference table sits the Superintendent, Dr. Norbert, Larry O’Neill, the Assistant Superintendent, and Cheryl Mendoza, President of the Prairiedale Teachers Association.

“You’d think after the year we had that people would be pleased,” Dr. Norbert states.

“A lot of teachers at the middle school feel that your success came at their expense,” Ms. Mendoza replied.

“I wasn’t the only one who succeeded,” Norbert shoots back. “It was our students and teachers. We’re all in this together.”

“We are,” Ms. Mendoza said. “But it’s not fair to have teachers at the middle school working with 80 to 110 students in five classes a day, while teams of two teachers, or I should say teams of one qualified teacher and one other person, handle one group of 30 students for six weeks.”

Seeing that tempers are rising, Superintendent Conklin interjects, “Now, now, let’s remember we’re all on the same team here. I’m aware of the concerns of teachers at the middle school, but something else has come up.” Mrs. Conklin turns to her Assistant Superintendent.

Mr. O’Neill begins, “it seems like our friends at the state Department of Education believe that your center is out of compliance with the standards regarding instructional contact hours.”

“But they encouraged us to explore new alternatives!” Dr. Norbert responds.

“Well, I guess they’re having second thoughts. Anyway, they cannot tell from the information you supplied in your end-of-year report exactly how many hours of instruction students received in specific subjects.”

D. Norbert looks at Mr. O’Neill, then at Mrs. Conklin. “You know the case we made. You were with me. We argued that project-based learning calls for students to integrate knowledge from many subjects. There’s no way we can track how many minutes of math and English and whatever each student receives.”

“Well, it looks like that’s what you’re going to have to do to please the bean counters,” Mr. O’Neill responds.

Watch Critical Perspectives from: 

Dr. Daniel Duke, Professor of Education, University of Virginia