Too Important to Delay

Too Important to Delay 091411

A Fringe Nagatorial on Local Schools


I’ve recently had brief discussions with school district personnel from Sierra Plumas and Plumas school districts, and have certainly enjoyed school board coverage from The Mountain Messenger Newspaper and I’ve been paying attention at Sierra County supervisors meetings, and I’m deeply alarmed, and I hope to alarm you.


I’ll start with an apology for not attending the Sierra Plumas meeting in Loyalton; I’d hoped to attend and was not able to.  It was an important meeting, though I’ll rely on Don Russell’s hilarious assessment in the Messenger to suspect nothing really new happened.  Something new needs to happen.


Instead of going into detail in this piece about federal replacement of lost timber resources, or the exact number of children the various schools have lost, or the rapidly occurring debt from deferred maintenance or replacement in the schools, I’m simply going to sketch out the situation and put forth some reasonable alternatives to schools as they exist now.   People with children are leaving our area for places where they can either find work, or pool resources with relatives.  The cost of living here is high; like most rural areas we rely on gas and diesel to get anywhere, and the cost of owning a car is too much for some families.  There are many small pressures which, as always happens in an economic crisis, have driven people from rural areas to urban areas.  Fewer students means less money.  A poor economy means less money for public services and high fuel prices means everything gets more expensive.  It’s reaching the point where we have to ask hard questions about the efficiency of our current educational configuration.


As funds become short, funds which are earmarked or otherwise by law or contract are fixed and can’t be adjusted.  Those expenses which can be reduced are.  This means that things like earthquake retrofitting take priority over new computers. 


The discussion becomes clearest when we discuss Sierra Valley schools.  Portola is half an hour or so from Loyalton.  There are 117 high school students and 52 middle school students in Loyalton schools.  Some of those students travel nearly as far to attend Loyalton as they would to attend Portola.  Plumas schools have also lost students, and suffer the same shortage of funds as Sierra schools, and it’s possible part of a solution might lie in sending some or even all Loyalton students to Portola.


For several hundred Valley residents, these are probably fighting words.  There is school Loyalty, the football team, the chance for local kids to get scholarships and so on.  All real, true, very important points.  But, we’re talking about surviving hard times here.  We’re talking about a time when you can buy a house in Loyalton or Portola for less than the price of a new car.  It’s time to shift into survival mode, and part of that is hope.  We hope to see Loyalton filled with children.  We hope to see Sierra County with an average age of 33 years.  We hope families will return.

A sound criticism of the plan is that some families in the Valley who are holding on by a thread will drop off and move if their children have to make a long bus trip every day.  I admit that almost certainly some will. They might anyway.


The long bus ride is another criticism, particularly in winter.  Myself, as a little fringeling, had to ride a bus 45 minutes in each direction.  I finished my homework and still had time to play “firedrill” by rushing from seat to seat during the stops.  Those rides were so long kids fell in love and split up on the way, and I’m pretty sure that on one dark December ride home there was a conception on board.  Long bus rides suck even if you don’t get motion sickness, and I’ll never be convinced of the safety of school buses.  I have to harness my kids to check mail, but the school system doesn’t have to fiddle with car seats at every stop? 


That’s why simply moving Loyalton schools to Plumas schools lock stock and barrel might not be the best solution, and at best might be a partial solution. 


Building maintenance is a spectacular cost to the district.  Some funds are earmarked for capital improvements, for example, but the district maintains the improvement thereafter.  In general, it’s easy for a school to defer maintenance in the face of other expenses.  Typically, there is “requirement creep” in which new regulations call for updating or adding things.  All of the requirements are for the health and safety of kids, but there is a point of diminishing returns.  When the cost of the building diminishes the educational experience of the children, we’ve missed the point of school.  Certainly we want our schools to be safe, but if the buildings lived through the last half century of earth quakes, they’ll probably go awhile longer.  Even so, requirements of all kinds eat away at money school administrators would like to spend on learning.


Part of the solution for our 21st Century schools might lie in the way we live our 21st Century lives.  Our location in physical space has never been less important.  Some of us still live without a computer, but we’d better not be young.   As motor fuel becomes more expensive, and brick and mortar stores give way to web sites and Fed Ex, more and more of us will find our livelihood working with, or completely on, the internet.  Indeed, the trend in universities is for students to attend and take part on line. 


Not every household has someone to be home and teach a child, even using the internet.  Charter schools are a good way for families to home school their children.  They provide books, testing, instruction and enrichment funds and supplies. 


Multi age class rooms also save brick and mortar and other expenses, and they more nearly approximate life as it happens: with people of different ages.  The “factory” approach of putting all kids of the same age in the same classroom meets the assumptions of the age-stage theorists of a century ago when the current school system was designed, but it doesn’t fit the way real people live and learn.  A small school serving students of several ages, using the internet as a key tool, might provide a better education for some kids.


Internet learning and small school buildings also accommodate two or three day a week classes, where the students spend some hours each week in class, and some hours at home on the computer. 


Some of these solutions might do something many people have longed to see: put kids in school in Sierraville.  Not a lot of kids, but local kids.


These aren’t new ideas, they borrow from a time when schools were small and local, or from places where children are widely scattered and teachers travel to meet with small groups. 


What about kids who don’t easily take to technology, or write or read well, or work well without close supervision?  What happens to them?  Currently, some simply waste time in school until they’re ready to struggle with the exit exam and either join the military or grow pot.  A better school design would re-institute the idea of “apprenticeship” to local businesses.  Likely there are too many regulations in our “For Your Own Good” society for something that simple to work.  It’s also possible that some of them would eventually learn better on computer, which provides different learning media.  Some people learn better from pictures than words. 


These ideas are not exhaustive, and there are probably great ideas which somehow didn’t emerge at the recent meeting. The point is to get our kids a good education, one that will prepare them to be successful adults.


In the coming weeks I’ll ask to chat with the superintendents of Sierra-Plumas and Plumas schools, and I’ll report back about discussions that might already be underway, or that need to begin.


But, this isn’t something we can leave to the school district or board.  Regardless the view of school boards shared by Mark Twain and Don Russell, it simply isn’t their job to bring this kind of change to the community.  We have to be aware of the hard times, the low student populations, and the swift changes in technology.  We have to be willing to try new and strange things, and we need to be able to accomplish this without old farts hogging the mike to tell of the glory days when the local boys wore leather helmets.  That was then, this is now, and our kids have to live in tomorrow. 




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