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Stop Complaining; Try 'Sweat Equity'

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We decided we couldn't afford to wait for someone else to care for our kids.

You'll have to excuse the brevity of this response to the recent General Accounting Office report that America has 80,000 public schools in disrepair. (See "Schools in All States Need Repair, Report Says", July 10, 1996.) The reason I don't have much time to write is because the parents and staff at our public charter school have been spending our summer repairing, repainting, re-landscaping, repaving, and cleaning up our site. We figured we had a choice to make (and it's the same choice I've made at four previous schools I've fixed up during the last 16 years). Our choices 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, or ante up a few bucks each out of our own pockets, contact a few local businesses for support, and commit large amounts of our own "sweat equity" to fixing the buildings ourselves.

Why did we choose the latter 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. We decided we couldn't afford to wait for someone else to care for our kids. Doing a simple survey of our parents and staff, we found that within our group were almost all 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. We've made our effort a family affair, gotten to know each other better at weekend work parties, and enjoyed the sincere camaraderie that comes from working shoulder to shoulder towards a worthy goal. Our administrator, teachers, parents, grandparents, community members, and students have scraped, painted, shoveled, and cleaned, while the small children helped out a little and played together in the schoolyard. We've shared some potluck lunches and a lot of cold drinks, and if we stay on schedule, our students will have a wonderfully refurbished school to proudly attend on Sept. 5.

No matter how many billion dollars the government decides to spend on America's crumbling public schools, the situation will never truly improve until we acknowledge that the physical disrepair is not cause but 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 towards helping the schools out. They're falling apart because we treat students in our schools like houseguests 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 waste, and the gates thereof 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 towards improving their schools. Who or what can stop you? And who or what can do it for you if you are unwilling to help yourselves?

Paul Douglas White is a teacher/principal/superintendent at Bellevue-Santa Fe Charter Elementary School in San Luis Obispo, Calif. He may be reached by email This essay first appeared in the Christian Science Monitor and is reprinted with permission.

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