Public Schools Come In Plain Or Fancy (Rhino Times)

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This week’s Rhino Times story of the week talks school construction…and the fact that a fully-functional school can cost $4.5 million…yes, it can. It may be utilitarian in nature and not offer the frills, but $4.5 million can be stomached a lot better than $88 million.

This has already generated a number of comments on other strands.

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Public Schools Come In Plain Or Fancy
by Paul Clark
Staff Writer

Two very different approaches to education are on display in Guilford County.

One results in expensive schools supporters claim support a host of innovative teaching techniques and are better equipped for the future; the other prides itself on “frankly utilitarian,” and much less expensive, schools that focus on the basics of education and is showing results today.

The futurist approach is typified by Guilford County Schools, which last week gathered 200 of its employees to draft educational specifications for the schools it will build if voters approve $457 million in school bonds in May. One of those schools is a $25 million, 700-student elementary school planned for north Greensboro.

//greensboro.heritageacademies.com/storage/46ead7a355322_93054.jpg” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors. The traditionalist approach is represented by Greensboro Academy, a 700-student charter school on Battleground Avenue built for $4.5 million in 2000. Unlike other Guilford County schools, it was built from its operating fund and required no capital budget.

Charter schools are public schools, funded by a per-pupil allotment of state tax dollars, but outside the control of the local Board of Education. They hire their own teachers outside the state personnel system and are free from many of the regulations that control other public schools. The North Carolina General Assembly has allowed 100 of them in the state.

In four days of workshops between Tuesday, March 11 and Friday, March 14, several hundred Guilford County Schools teachers, principals and administrators met to draft educational specifications – descriptions of how teachers will teach in new schools. In the next round of workshops, in April, they will use those descriptions to create design specifications to hand to architects designing those new schools.

The workshops started with a session run by Sue Robertson of the Planning Alliance, a New Orleans-based educational planning service. At the first workshop, Robertson spoke against the “factory model” of education – in other words, the traditional system of lining up students in rows in front of teachers. That model developed during the Industrial Revolution, when factories were seen as modern and progressive, she said.

“It was all about efficiency, lining people up,” Robertson said.

Robertson showed the educators plans of recently built schools, such as Eugene Ashley High School in Wilmington, North Carolina, designed around “learning clusters” – groups of flexible classrooms sharing project, study and audiovisual areas.

Such designs look for all the world like kindergarten classrooms, complete with desks arranged in circles and scattered patterns for different uses. Robertson, in fact, praised the flexible-space model for all grade levels.

“Think about a kindergarten classroom if you want to think about a high school classroom that works,” she said.

The futurist model does not plan on students remaining in one organized group to listen to a teacher, which Robertson derided as “stand and deliver” teaching. Instead, it assumes that the students will separate and combine to form, alternately, large and small groups for different projects.

Futurist teaching leans heavily on next-generation educational jargon such as students having “multiple intelligences” – each student having a different way of learning, such as linguistic learning, logical learning, spatial learning or interpersonal learning.

It also assumes that there will be more space for each student. It’s an assumption that results in larger, and more expensive, schools.

“If you put 30 kids in a 700-square-foot room, you’re not going to be able to do these things,” Robertson said.

Save for the opening session, the workshops were closed to the public – a fact that Robertson seemed not to know at that session. She asked how many present were teachers or principals. Most raised their hands. When she asked how many were parents or other concerned citizens, only a few Guilford County Board of Education members and Jeff Deal and Gary Paul Kane, members of the school board’s Construction Advisory Committee, raised their hands.

Robertson said the educational specifications that the group would write, once converted to design specifications, would be modified by specifications for each school site.

“Don’t feel like it’s about a cookie-cutter approach,” she said. “It’s not.”

Ironically, the adjective “cookie-cutter” is the exact one at-large school board candidate Alan Hawkes used, with pride, to describe Greensboro Academy.

Hawkes, who is on the board of Greensboro Academy, described the charter school, run by the 55-school, Michigan-based National Heritage Academies chain, as a cookie-cutter design based on typical post-and-beam construction, built for $3 million on a $1.5 million lot.

National Heritage Academies builds the same exact school over and over, Hawkes said. In fact, the picture on Greensboro Academy’s website is actually an identical school elsewhere, and no one has noticed.

Hawkes contrasted it with the construction style of new Guilford County schools like Northern Guilford High School and Northern Guilford Middle School.

“It’s not an ornate, environmentally friendly, portico-laced structure like the Northern schools,” said Hawkes, who bragged about the school’s “cheap vinyl siding.”

Despite Hawkes’ reverse pride, which makes the school sound like a log cabin, Greensboro Academy’s building feels neither cheap nor particularly spartan. It’s comfortable, attractive and surgically clean. The siding looks fine.

“As plain as what goes on the outside is, it’s what goes on the inside that makes a difference,” Hawkes said.

Greensboro Academy is a public school, publicly funded with its students chosen by lottery from a long waiting list. It has 80 open kindergarten seats a year, 40 of which are given to siblings of current students. About 250 families on the waiting list vie for the remaining 40 seats.

In addition to the strong demand for seats, parent satisfaction is high, if the school’s low attrition rate is any evidence. No parents withdrew their kindergarten students this year, according to Hawkes, leaving the first parent on the waiting list – the manager at the coffee shop Hawkes frequents – still waiting.

“I’m almost in jeopardy of losing my coffee privileges,” Hawkes joked.

During a visit to Greensboro Academy on Friday, March 14, Leslie Lane, the school’s parent ambassador, who gives tours to parents, didn’t talk much about the building, except to say it had little extra space.

“It’s very efficient,” she said. “There’s not a lot of waste. We fill up all of that school.”

The curriculum at Greensboro Academy is simple, focusing on math, reading and writing. It offers science, history and Latin.

The school requires students to wear uniforms, called standard dress, something not in evidence Friday, which was ACC Day; students, if they contributed a dollar to a charity, were allowed to wear jeans and ACC T-shirts.

At assembly in the school’s gym, the students were remarkably well behaved. They filed in with their hands in their pockets, a requirement when they travel in groups. They sat in rows on the gym floor, joking and laughing, but with little yelling or fidgeting and no punching. When a teacher or principal raised his or her hand, the students all raised theirs, as they are required to, and the large room quieted quickly.

Principal Rudy Swofford and various teachers led the students in reciting the introduction to the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The students also recited the Greensboro Academy student creed, which includes not only academic excellence but “high moral character.”

The ACC-themed day continued with cheers for various teams. One teacher, sang “This Land is My Land,” with the lyrics to altered to make it a University of North Carolina fight song. Swofford, clad in an NC State sweatshirt, called the song inappropriate.

“Anyone not wearing Wolfpack colors will be sentenced to extra homework,” Swofford said. “And anyone wearing a Carolina shirt will be sentenced to double the amount of homework.”

Students wearing colors other than Wolfpack red shouted Swofford down but, despite the briefly noisy rivalry, quieted down almost instantly when he raised his arm, raising theirs in response.

Assistant Principal Jeff Johnston said Greensboro Academy’s unabashed emphasis on “moral focus,” which is both a class and a behavior guide, sets it apart from other public schools. Moral focus classes teach a virtue of the month, such as friendship, discretion or responsibility, as well as topics like getting or long, or the dangers of bullying.

Johnston, who has worked at the school for seven years and for National Heritage Academies for 10, said the moral focus creates an environment in which teachers have control of the classroom and enjoy their work.

Johnston said teacher pay is merit based, and teachers have “a lot of liberty, but at the same time, a lot of accountability” compared to other public schools.

“The best teachers are going to make more money than the mediocre teachers,” Johnston said. “But the mediocre teachers don’t tend to stick around long.”

Teacher Courtney Evans said expectations are high for the students, too. In her classroom, as in all Greensboro Academy classrooms, there are lists of rules and expectations on the wall that all students must learn.

The rules include following directions, keeping your hands and feet to yourself, and being respectful in your words and actions. The expectations include completing your homework, always saying “thank you” when given something, following the dress code, greeting and welcoming visitors and, a final side-benefit of the Latin curriculum, “carpe diem,” or seize the day.

Students respond to the expectations, Evans said.

“I have boys who are set on getting all A’s this year,” Evans said. “You just don’t see that in 11-year-old boys.”

Whatever the precise cause, Greensboro Academy is showing results. State records show of the 2006-2007 school year, it had a 92.6 academic rating on a 100-point scale, the third-highest academic achievement of any public school in Guilford County, exceeded only by two schools: Oak Ridge Elementary, with a 93.1, and Summerfield Elementary, with a 92.9.

Hawkes, who is basing his campaign on the success of Greensboro Academy, acknowledged that there is a certain amount of self-selection in charter schools. Parents with students at the school are highly motivated, able to negotiate the waiting list and to transport their students to the school, he said. Greensboro Academy provides no bus transportation.

Lane said that parents are heavily involved in the school, but not at a rate that explains the academic results.

“The percentage of the parents involved doesn’t match the percentage of kids doing well,” she said.

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E.C. )

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