This time last year I was just finishing up a three month process of researching schools. A subject that, to be honest, has never interested me. I guess, on some level, I’ve always understood that schools are important, but I could have never anticipated the piles of research, hours of reading and the depth of knowledge that existed, centered around one topic: schools and their impact on community.
The path that led me to spending hours of my time reading about educational facilities planning started in an unsurprising way. It started in the same way many advocacy stories begin. I saw a threat to something I cared about, a school that meant something to me. I feared the conversations occurring regarding this school and its location were not telling the whole story. And I felt a call to action to help guide the conversation, and ensure that all voices were heard so the eventual result of this debate would weigh all the options equally. The product of this research was a blog post, Tech High School: A Tradition of Excellence, A Future in Flux, my attempt to offer an alternate viewpoint regarding the impact of building a new school – before voters made their decision about the referendum.
When the night of the referendum vote came, I felt torn. There wasn’t a result of this vote that was going to make me happy. If the referendum was voted down, the school district would be denied much needed funding to improve their educational facilities – but it if was approved a new school would be constructed, something that I knew was a mistake. The next morning I awoke to news that the referendum failed. I felt relief and concern. What are they going to do now? They still need money, the schools are still in terrible shape, and this doesn’t solve any problems. But also, for now, I knew we had an opportunity to create a more balanced discussion about the future of Tech High School.
Where we are now: the school
Shortly after the referendum failed I connected with Kevin Allenspach of the St. Cloud Times to have a conversation about next steps (read here). Since the article, I have connected with many who share my concern about the school. One of them, Sarah Murphy, a fellow Tech graduate, now lives in Colorado. She has experience working on the rehabilitation and renovation of an existing school in Denver – North High School. Sarah shared her experience with me and her impression that, perhaps, the renovation of Tech wasn’t given proper consideration.
Sarah and I decided to take a tour of Tech High School to see it for ourselves (check out my SnapChat story here). To be clear, we do not now, nor will we ever be interested in proposing a bid to rehab the building as a school. We toured the building with the sole purpose of better educating ourselves on its current repair needs. I do not want to mislead you, the school has major issues, ones that would require consideration if a renovation, of any kind, were pursued. But, as I’ve said before, I have not been provided evidence that these issues cannot be overcome and would make the feasibility of retaining Tech High School as an educational facility for another 100 years impossible.
I haven’t seen stats on this – but according to many people I’ve spoken with, District 742 is losing students. One cause of this, I’m told, is the quality of high schools in the neighboring districts of Sartell and Sauk Rapids. This is frustrating, I agree. It is difficult to maintain proper school facilities and high quality staff when the tax base that supports your district is dwindling. It may seem that the best solution to this problem is to build a school similar to those in Sartell or Sauk Rapids. I believe this would be shortsighted. St. Cloud is not Sartell. It’s not Sauk Rapids. One might even argue that the only reason that Sartell and Sauk Rapids are the thriving municipalities they are is because of the successful growth of St. Cloud.
One argument I often hear, in one form or another, is that; if District 742 doesn’t find a way to attract the mid-to-high-income families back to their district, they will fail. They will not have the money to offer sufficient educational programs, which could lead to a widening in the already intolerable achievement gap. What is going unspoken here is the underlying implication that they only way to attract wealthy families back to the district is to build a new school. However, moving the school will not solve the issues of racism, poverty and inequality with which St. Cloud struggles, and that play out in the hallways of the schools. It will only hide it better. I believe that a renovation of Tech High School’s current location could, not only attract those affluent families, but also go a long way to creating a more inclusive community overall.
Where we are now: next steps
The school district must move forward in its pursuit of funding – new school or not. Listening sessions will be held across the district, meant to give community members an opportunity to speak their minds. If you are a resident of District 742, I encourage you attend these meetings. And, please, let me know how they go!
I have some very specific requests of District 742, as they go back to the drawing board and begin designing the future of the school district.
Disclose (or obtain) all the information.
We need more information to decide if Tech High School can or cannot be renovated. A facilities condition report, historic structures assessment and environmental study are just a few of the information gathering reports that should be made publically available.
Provide a realistic concept design for the renovation of Tech’s current location
Guide the architects to develop a design scheme for the current location of Tech that does not force a sprawling campus onto a dense urban site. No, Tech’s current site cannot sustain six baseball diamonds, three soccer fields, eight tennis courts, a football stadium and acres of parking. But, let’s get creative – request the architects answer these questions: what can fit? How can we creatively use the space we have? And what partnerships and opportunities exist with the City of St. Cloud, St. Cloud State University and other neighboring schools to meet the athletic needs of the school?
Until these questions are answered, I fear we are having a one-sided conversation. Now is your opportunity, District 742, to make the St. Cloud Area School District one that the state, and even the country, can look to as an example of how to create community-centered schools, where students succeed and the community thrives.