Making Schools A Higher Priority

Jade Moon
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Wednesday - June 08, 2005
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The last time I saw Sylvia Henry she was sweltering in a hot box — otherwise known as a classroom — in Waipahu. August Ahrens Elementary School is one of the largest in the state, and it housed all its third- and fourth-grade kids in old wooden portables.

Three years ago when I visited, the children looked like wilted flowers — enervated, sweat dripping from their heads to their papers below. Mrs. Henry walked around and around the room. Too hot, she said, to stand still. When they turned on their rotary fans the papers blew away. So for the most part, they endured. And they managed. Somehow the kids and teachers in our schools usually do.

So I was overjoyed a couple of weeks ago to attend a very special event at August Ahrens — the blessing of a brand new, modern and totally air-conditioned eight-classroom building. I watched as the children walked past their old portables and entered a room that was clean, bright and comfortably cool. In other words, the kind of learning environment all of our children should have. That’s one big step forward.

And a then, as always, step back. Just a few days later we learned that state lawmakers had passed a budget for school repair and maintenance — $75 million.

That may sound like a lot of money, but consider. There is a repair and maintenance backlog for our public schools of more than $400 million!

The projects range from fixing water fountains to patching leaky roofs. Experts have said in order to shrink that backlog, the schools must get at least $100 million every year. Anything less and the backlog grows.

I know we’re talking a lot of money here. But fixing up broken schools and building new classrooms are critical. And we take too long to get them done.

Consider August Ahrens. The school administrators and the community fought for a decade to get that building. Along the way the fourth-graders got AC because their portables line Waipahu road. The classrooms were considered noisy, so air conditioners were a noise abatement solution. But the thirdgraders — just one row back — got no such relief. The DOE could not justify cooling their classrooms just because they were miserably hot.

Three years ago, Henry knew the plans were in the works for the new building, but she doubted it would ever get built. After all, she had been waiting and hoping for years. Time passed, and each year she watched another batch of her thirdgraders sit in the heat and attempt to learn. Hope turned to frustration and frustration turned to skepticism.

But on this day, I watched as she moved from student to student, speaking words of encouragement, doling out praise, making suggestions for improvements. She looked refreshed. She looked happy.

“I’m happy for the kids,” she told me.

She thinks it will make a huge difference. Third grade, after all, is a critical testing year. They take the national SATs and the state’s assessment test. Henry is sure the new classroom will boost her students’ performance. Not only because of the AC, but because there are more tools at her disposal. The classrooms are wired for the latest technology. They are quiet and well lit.

“I’ve never been in an air-conditioned class, except for computer lab,” one little girl told me.

I was happy for her, but also sad because there are so many kids out there who don’t know that things can and should be better. And there are so many teachers who suffer in silence and do the best they can.

AC is not a panacea — no one is suggesting that test scores will miraculously jump 10 points. But a good learning environment should be a given for our kids. A mother I spoke with was grateful for the new building. But she thinks the DOE needs to do more.

“What adult would like sweating in those rooms day in and day out, trying to learn? The adult would say, give me AC. It’s not fair to the kids.”

Principal Florentina Smith, who came on board after the process to acquire the building had begun, says one of her goals is to cool more classrooms. Parents are willing to donate and eager to help install the systems. But the big problem is infrastructure. The old buildings are not wired to give any more power. That part will have to be paid for by the state. Smith says it’s a long-term project.

“Long term — as in another 10 years?” I asked her.

No, she replied. She’s thinking that with all the community support she has, it may take five or six. That’s better than a decade, I guess.

If we are truly concerned about education in Hawaii we need to take a long and hard look at where our priorities are and have been for the past few decades. They certainly haven’t been on the physical condition of our schools.

The stakes are higher now than they’ve ever been. Pat Hamamoto and her people are fighting hard to raise students’ performance — and to not only comply with No Child Left Behind, but to exceed the expectations.

I think she needs help.

She needs a dedicated source of funding. Think that’s impossible? Take a look at the tax hike the city is hoping to implement to pay for transportation projects. Could lawmakers figure out something for education?

If Hawaii residents really want it, they could find a way to give more students and teachers what Mrs. Henry and her kids now have — an environment that helps, not hinders, children who want to learn.

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