Walking to Save a School Library
When tag sales fail, teachers and students put their feet to work
SHELBURNE FALLS, MASS. — PRINCIPAL Paul Swem and his elementary school students could rightfully boast about their creative fund-raising skills.Yet despite their best efforts - from selling candy bars door to door to putting the principal on the school's roof for a day - it looks as though their school library will be closed next fall. For the second year in a row, it won't be getting any funding from the district. Out of desperation, Mr. Swem recently walked 110 miles from Shelburne Falls here in western Massachusetts to the State House in Boston. He wanted to personally deliver a "message of frustration" from his students to Gov. William Weld (R). "It seems [as if] the deficits are bigger than any of us can handle," he says. "The balance of our funding between the town's share and the state's share is shifting radically toward the townspeople." In four years, the district's state funding has dropped from 62 percent to 38 percent, Swem says. Although that's a particularly drastic reduction in state funding, more than 30 states are now facing serious budget troubles, says Chris Pipho, director of state relations for the Education Commission of the States in Denver. Coupled with diminished federal funds, the state reductions mean that local governments are getting stuck with much more of the education bill, Mr. Pipho says. For small towns like those in the Buckland-Shelburne region, cutbacks quickly get to the bone. "Here in the small towns of about 2,000 residents, when three-quarters of the budget goes to the schools, the townspeople have to go dry in terms of fixing potholes and providing a second policeman on duty," says Swem. To keep the library open this past school year, Swem and his students made the rounds with hat in hand. The principal endured the dunking booth at fund-raising events and spent a sweltering day on the school's roof to earn $1,000. "It was agonizing," Swem says of the entire fund-raising effort. "People are fed up with us coming door to door selling candy bars." The ambitious year-long SOS ("Save Our Schools") fund-raising program earned a total of $14,000. That allowed the library to remain open with a part-time librarian and no new supplies. But the reprieve was short-lived. In March, the local school committee determined that the $29,000 needed to fund the library starting next fall would not be available. When a group of fourth-graders at the school heard the news, they initiated a brainstorming session with Swem during his lunch duty. "They were wondering: 'Mr. Swem, can we do some tag sales? recalls the principal. "You're never supposed to laugh at a brainstorming session, but I laughed. I said, 'You kids are crazy. You can't do a fund-raising effort on a weekend and raise $29,000. Let's talk about what $29,000 is." That half-hour lunch session led to a consensus among the students and the principal. "We were feeling disenfranchised and wanted to get the message out," Swem says. Thus began what he calls "an incredible schoolwide social studies program." The students helped write the one-paragraph "letter of frustration," addressed to the governor. They copied it on a scroll 3 feet wide and 40 feet long and got 500 signatures from students, parents, and friends. Swem offered to strap the scroll on his back and walk the 110 miles to Boston because he knew that sending the message there unaccompanied wouldn't make an impact. "I knew that a spontaneous gesture of marching it there over the course of many days would probably raise the consciousness level of all those who saw this parade - this children's crusade - from here to there," he says. Support for the idea spread throughout the school and the community. "The place crackled with enthusiasm," says Swem, an athletic, energetic man, well-tanned from his recent days walking in the sun. "It was the right idea at the right time. We were at a very, very low point in fiscal morale, so to speak." On the first day of this 12-day journey, the entire school walked behind Swem until he reached the main road heading toward Boston. Then he and about 25 other adults continued on for five miles. For the remainder of the journey, Swem came in to work each morning and picked up the route again every afternoon, averaging 10 miles a day. Parents, teachers, and students from all the district's schools joined in for various legs of the hike. Justin Moffatt, a 16-year-old high schooler in the district, walked 65 of the miles over seven days. "We needed to do something," he says. "Paul set an example for us of what could be done." On the final day, 260 parents, students, and teachers marched alongside Swem, chanting "Save Our Schools." The crowd arrived at the gold-domed State House on June 19, the first day of the district's summer vacation. Although the school had worked hard to get word of their arrival to the State House ahead of time, the governor didn't make an appearance. "I think they underestimated the size of the crowd that would end up in Boston," Swem says. Since the 12-day walk, a representative from the governor's education office has come to the school and listened to the community's concerns. "All of our efforts didn't get us any more dollars," Swem admits. "The budget will be signed by the governor, we'll figure out how many dollars we have from local and state aid and we'll struggle toward rebuilding." But it's all too rare for children to be heard by not only their teachers and principal but also state leaders. "We empowered children to speak out and to act," Swem says.