An often repeated but seldom heeded aphorism warns us that “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The results of the coming school bond election may tell us how attentive Springfield residents are to the lessons of history.
The narratives of the campaign have evolved somewhat over the last six months, but its present state was best summed up in a recent campaign appearance by Superintendent John Jungmann in which he declared that “We’ve made no claims that this is going to raise test scores…Good quality facilities don’t result in great test scores. They do result in good learning environments where we can attract high-quality teachers to support our students and help us attract high-quality families to be a part of Springfield’s community for the future.”
This vision is reminiscent of the ideas of the architects of a disastrous school reform effort in Kansas City three decades ago. In 1985, federal judge Russell Clark mandated that an immense reform of Kansas City’s schools would be undertaken. Like the present Springfield plan, its primary focus was the massive renovation and new construction of dozens of schools. Its advocates promised that this creation of state of the art learning environments would attract hundreds of middle class students from the suburbs, thereby transforming the school culture in Kansas City.
Despite the expenditure of over $2 billion dollars to execute this vision, the shiny new buildings did not lure suburban students to the city’s schools and student achievement continued to plummet, leading to the district’s losing its state accreditation.
A contrasting lesson of history was soon generated here in Springfield. For nearly two decades school leaders had sought to close Central High School. Its enrollment had steadily declined and its physical plant was neglected as district leaders eschewed investment in a building they wished to discard from their inventory.
In 1996, however, a majority of our school board members heeded the pleas of Springfield parents and teachers who urged the board to create an International Baccalaureate diploma program at Central. The introduction of this rigorous high-quality curriculum had extraordinary effects. Parents from all over Springfield elected to send their sons and daughters to Central, and in a short time it had the fastest growing enrollment of any school in the district despite its deteriorating physical condition.
In a few short years the board asked voters to support its physical restoration and voters responded affirmatively because its institutional renewal was successfully underway, and they now believed the building warranted a substantial investment.
Central’s success is a source of community pride and a reminder of another lesson of history worth remembering. What goes on within the walls of a school is more important than the visible appearance of those walls. Like Judge Clark, our school leaders care deeply about children and they genuinely wish the best for them, but our life experiences tell us that good intentions alone often pave a road to undesirable destinations.
Spending lots of tax dollars to build new buildings is easy. Creatively directing resources to transform what occurs in those buildings is difficult. Let us hope that Springfield residents will remember the lessons of history as they decide which path to follow