Decent facilities can enhance the quality of our kids’ education

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  • Wednesday, January 9, 2008 9:00am
  • Opinion

By BOB HENNESSEY

Most of us know the Vashon Island School District is among the best in the state. People move to Vashon for our schools. More than 120 kids commute from off-Island each day, glad to have the chance for an education here.

Here are some things you may not know: At Vashon High School, teachers have to shuffle from building to building because there aren’t enough classrooms. English classes must share space with the school band in a room with no desks, so they assemble folding tables when they need to write. Some teachers give exams in the lunch room because their classroom is too small.

The issue is not that outstanding instruction cannot occur in inadequate facilities. It clearly can and it is. The issue is whether teachers and students in a community that so clearly values education should be asked to be great in spite of their surroundings.

The Vashon Island School District is planning for its facility needs for the next 20 years. Planning ahead will help ensure spending decisions are not made on an ad hoc basis, such as when a roof starts leaking or a heating system fails. Spending for buildings and other facilities does not compete with funding for teachers, curriculum or classroom supplies, which come from the school district’s operating budget.

So how does the physical condition of classrooms affect student achievement? The things to look at include lighting, acoustics, temperature and indoor air quality. Proper lighting can improve math scores and reading performance. Indoor air quality affects both student and teacher absenteeism. And there are financial and environmental benefits. According to the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, an investment of $5 million on high performance facilities could save about 38 percent in reduced water and wastewater costs and about 30 percent in energy costs and pay for itself in roughly eight years. Even better, those costs savings can go directly to hire teachers or buy textbooks.

As part of the current facilities planning process, district staff looked at our buildings from a variety of perspectives, including facility condition and how well they are suited to delivering the education program we envision for the coming decades. Chautauqua Elementary School and McMurray Middle School generally fare well. However, the high school and several district-wide facilities do poorly in a number of important respects.

After inspecting the high school last month, the King County Fire Marshall issued a lengthy list of conditions to be corrected. For example, high school students are using the wood art classroom to also teach senior English and Pacific Northwest history. Both classes exceed the room’s maximum occupancy. To work around the problem, the classes will be moved to a different location, meaning two teachers cannot have their classroom during their planning period.

The Fire Marshall also directs that no more than 15 students can work in the jewelry lab. Unfortunately, those classes have up to 24 students. Rather than removing kids from the classes, the district is disposing of old items from the former auto shop and moving the class to that space. Certainly not ideal, but the teacher and students deserve credit for being flexible.

We all understand the importance of providing excellent education to our kids. From the number of volunteers in our schools to donations made each year to PTSA and Partners in Education, this community’s commitment to public education is the envy of the Puget Sound region.

But, the truth is, we can’t afford it all. We’re a rural community with rising property values and spiraling ferry costs. Yes, education is a core value on Vashon; but so is affordable housing and economic diversity that includes low and moderate income families. And no matter how one thinks about investing in our kids, if you’re a retiree on a fixed income — or a teacher — property taxes are a huge part of the cost of living on Vashon.

We have to prioritize. Using student performance as a yardstick, the district will be measuring potential building improvements against how they support learning. We need to get the most from our education dollars, and we need the public to lend its know-how to this discussion. Superintendent Terry Lindquist has compiled state and national information on student learning and facility needs, as well as enrollment projections and other critical Island-specific data, but we need you to help develop a common-sense plan that supports our kids and builds our community.

We all have a stake in our Island’s schools, and I hope everyone will participate in this conversation.

— Bob Hennessey, the father of three children in the Vashon Island School District, chairs the school board.

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