Rebuilding Our Public Schools

You'll have to excuse the brevity of this response to the recent General Accounting Office finding that America has 80,000 public schools in disrepair.

The reason I don't have much time to write is because the parents and staff at our public charter school have been spending the summer repairing, repainting, relandscaping, repaving, and cleaning up our own site. Our options were the same ones that every school in disrepair faces:

*Continue to whine and gripe about the lack of government funding while our schools remain humiliating testaments to indifference and neglect.

*Ante up a few bucks out of our own pockets, contact a few local businesses for some support, and commit large amounts of our own "sweat equity" to fixing the buildings ourselves.

Why did we choose the second option? Because, as Winston Churchill once said, "It's not always enough to do your best. Sometimes you have to do what's required."

As a school community, we decided that improving our children's learning environment "required" our fullest possible commitment. When we surveyed the parents and staff, we found that our group had most of the skills we needed to make our school look brand new.

We've taken a few less weekend vacations these past several months. We've donated a few more hours of our free time. Our administrator, teachers, parents, grandparents, community members, and students have scraped, painted, shoveled, and cleaned, while the children helped out and played together in the schoolyard. We've shared some potluck lunches and cold drinks, and if we stay on schedule, our students will have a refurbished school on Sept. 5.

No matter how many billions of dollars the government decides to spend on America's crumbling public schools, the situation will never improve until we acknowledge that the physical disrepair is not the cause, but the effect.

Public school buildings are not crumbling because the physical plants are incapable of existing any longer. They're falling apart because the uninspired leadership that pervades public education has mismanaged their budgets, unwisely deferred regular preventive maintenance, and showed a lack of commitment and courage to stopping the excessive vandalism that prematurely ages our buildings and grounds.

They're falling apart because the adversarial relationship that frequently exists between school and home has made these unempowered parents angry and indifferent toward helping the schools. They're falling apart because we treat students in our schools like house guests with no responsibility, rather than family members or fellow shareholders who have a stake in keeping the "company" afloat.

Thousands of years old, the rousing words of the Old Testament prophet Nehemiah provide a timely call to action for all of us: "Ye see the distress that we are in," he said. "How Jerusalem lieth in waste, and the gates theoreof are burned with fire: come and let us build up the wall ... that we be no more a reproach."

Notice that Nehemiah said to let "us" and not the government "build up the wall." The state of America's public schools is more than a "reproach"; it is an absolute blight on our nation. But take heart, there is a simple (but not easy) solution. Teachers, parents, and community members who are tired of waiting for the government to rescue them can rise up, get together, and start working today toward improving their schools.

Paul Douglas White is a teacher, principal, and superintendent at Bellevue-Santa Fe Charter Elementary School in San Luis Obispo, Calif. He welcomes comments at his e-mail address:

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