One of my political heroes, Harvey Milk, said that ‘you gotta give ‘em hope.’ At the core of who I am as a human being, I truly believe that the best way to give people hope is to show and prove that you are committed to truly listening to their concerns and that you are willing to take the necessary action to bring forth change. Progress doesn’t happen by coincidence, it takes a conscious commitment.
When it comes to our students, we absolutely owe it to them to give them some very tangible hope that we will value their education to the utmost. The benefit of preparing our children for success is mutual. They become life ready citizens, prepared to make progress in the world they inherit from us, and we get to be an integral part of that journey. They will become the manifestations of our hopes and dreams, so long as we, very realistically, nurture their forward progress.
Moving forward, we will give our students hope by improving the quality and comfortability of the environments where they and our high quality educators gather together. Our school buildings need some serious work, some even may need to be completely rebuilt. We can’t expect that new buildings will last forever, at least not without the proper planning required to sustain them. On average, buildings deteriorate at a rate of about 2 percent per year. In order to properly maintain and operate our buildings, we should be investing at least 2 percent of the current cost to build, every year, into our buildings. That doesn’t include the human-power investment necessary for the upkeep and improvement of our school buildings. We need to commit to keeping proper staffing levels in our maintenance department and be ready to train new personnel as our current highly qualified personnel prepare to retire in the near future. This needs to be part of an actual plan to move us forward into the 21st century. We need a Facilities Development policy.
We should be ready (if experience has taught us anything) to commit to creating a long term vision for our schools. To a larger degree, we do that in terms of curriculum, equity goals, and so on and so forth. Where we seem to have a gap is in the long term view of how to maintain, operate and continuously improve our learning environments. Make no mistake, our educators do absolute magic in terms of how creatively they use their spaces. We need to offer them a more conducive environment to display that creativity and maximize the experience for our students, and we need to put that promise in writing, in policy.
Working in our elementary schools has given me a far broader view of what needs of our educators and students are lacking. While it is nostalgic and even educational to see relics of the history of education in America, it is alarming to see some of the antiquated furnishings our educators are forced to work with. I had the opportunity to walk through Fort River the first time with the lead architect from TSKP Studios (the architecture firm used for the Fort River School Building Committee feasibility study) he remarked, several times, about seeing features within the building that were “on the way out” when he initially embarked on his career in architecture…three decades ago. To be honest, I felt a degree of embarrassment. I’m the person representing this building the first time a professional is coming to assess the building and he’s reminiscing about things he was changing when I was a preteen.
The Fort River School Building Committee’s feasibility study resulted in five options, ranging from simply bringing the building up to code (the bare minimum, a marker for comparison, essentially) to building an entirely new building at that site. If we learned anything, it is the following; we have a need for a range of options beyond just bringing the building up to code, the Fort River site is buildable, we have options worthy of consideration. Which path we take towards improving our elementary schools will have to be the product of consensus through well deliberated discussions, resulting in a compromise that the majority of Amherst residents will get behind. Throughout the process, we must all remain vigilantly mindful of who needs to benefit the most out of this…our children.