The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

How to Build a Great School and then Destroy It

on February 9, 2020

When I came to my new school in Portland Oregon it was the only one in a small country town made up of farmers, workers with low paying jobs, elderly people, and homeless wanderers. Our school consisted of two buildings on opposite sides of a long dirty road. One of them was an elementary school and the other a middle-grade school. We had about three hundred students altogether. Because our main building was old and neglected, there was nothing really interesting for students to do inside or outside of it.

Fortunately, however, when I began to complain about our poor conditions the state granted us enough funding to make significant improvements throughout the school and in its surroundings. Our first actions outside the buildings were to clean up the schoolyard and adopt the road that ran past our school. Although there were very few houses on that road and not many cars going through it, drivers regularly threw trash onto the road or got out of their cars to push large, dirty, items down into the valley.

When one of our teachers decided to clean up the road and take care of the valley’s trash he contacted the local police department and persuaded it to officially mark the road as our domain. Then he nailed up a large sign on a tree by the road in order to make our authority clear to everyone driving bye. After that he obtained tools for cleaning up the road and outfits for the students when they were working there. Finally, he organized a group of mature students to do road and valley cleanups as needed during afternoon school time. On the day their work began a big group of other students, teachers, and parents gathered to watch them work and cheer them on; and I joined them. From then on cleaning up that road and it’s valley was repeated three or four times a year, and he was ready to continue for as long as the school existed.

The next activity I got involved with was suggested by one of our middle school teachers. Although her students had a daily study period for homework and reading, most of them fooled around instead of working; and they disturbed others who were trying to study. She figured it would be much better for students to use their time doing jobs and earning rewards than carrying out their current nonsense. When I saw their behavior I agreed completely. It would be good for students to be active and learning new skills during the early noontime. Later, other teachers and school workers suggested that their students would be interested and benefit if they also had jobs and rewards. This time their jobs would be serving children food during the second noon hour.

Later on, when more students decided that they too wanted jobs, we set up a new plan for older and responsible students to clean up the gymnasium at the end of each school day by mopping up it’s floor and putting away the equipment used. We also appointed some mature students to deliver work materials to where they were needed, post students’ art work in hallways, empty classroom trash cans, and wipe up the glass doors inside and outside the school. But our biggest, and most important, new student jobs were collecting used school material that had been discarded into classroom trash cans, but could instead be re-sold to companies for repair and resale. Not only were we paid big money for usable materials, we also paid less for our garbage pick-ups because we were producing less garbage than before. All the school workers in those more demanding areas were supervised in their work time by teachers or other school employees.

Over several of the following years our school operations worked beautifully, just as we had planned. And because we were doing so well, we attracted many visitors from other schools and local newspapers. But even though things were working well for us, the state administration decided to merge all small country schools with larger schools in big cities. Unfortunately, our school was the first one to go.  Not only was it merged with a much larger school in a big city, our special programs were also eliminated.

In my opinion, all those final actions were not only bad news for us but also public warnings against developing new practices in public schools. Despite the fact that we had created the most interesting and effective large school in the state at that time, and served the needs and interests of it’s students better than any other school, the state destroyed us by merging our school with a bigger one in another city. To my knowledge all the new and significant education practices produced by our school have never emerged again anywhere else. And I don’t expect to see them any time in the near future.

 


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