At Tafolla Middle School, principal Jeff Price has to raise his voice to speak over the wheezing and rattling of the air conditioner in the school’s library.
“This is where we have (professional development),” Price said. “We have to turn (the AC) off while people are talking.”
In the auditorium, a leaking air conditioner has led to severe buckling and warping on the stage. There too, the air conditioner has to be turned on and off throughout the day to balance comfort and leakage.
Price and others are hoping that voters approve a $450 million bond for major campus improvements across San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD). Also on the November ballot will be a Tax Ratification Election (TRE) to increase the district’s operating budget. Details on campus by campus proposals are available on the district’s website.
The bond is anticipated to be the second of three major initiatives aimed at bringing all SAISD campuses up to standard. With the substantial completion of the 2010 bond projects, the district turned its attention to the next 13 schools now labeled “Priority 1.”
Of the 13 schools, all but one have major architectural systems dating back to the 1968 bond. This was before the days of ADA, let alone best practices in learning-conducive environments. Deteriorating materials, radiators, windowless rooms, and the total absence of technology infrastructure make the schools look like time capsules of mid-century education. Strange smells from leaky pipes and air conditioners waft through the halls.
That is when the systems are working at all.
At Tafolla, Price said that they have had to use a series of fans to remove humidity and cool rooms when air conditioners go out. In one room, the HVAC isn’t responsive to its thermostat, so the classroom is either freezing or sweltering.
Though it failed to meet State accountability measures, Price said that the school is starting to see gains. Some programs, like the mariachis and the band, are excelling in spite of stuffy quarters.
“We’re making do. I can only imagine if we had better resources at our fingertips how much more we could accelerate,” Price said.
The cost of “making do” is felt as a ripple effect across departments. The choir and strings programs had to move into the counselor’s offices because the HVAC in their rooms did not work at all. Now counselors have to relocate to available private spaces so they can meet with troubled students.
For State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-123), Tafolla has a personal connection.
“I learned the most about life and people at Tafolla Middle School,” Bernal said, who is a Tafolla alumnus.
He sees the bond as a chance to take a step toward equity. SAISD students are, as a whole, from a lower socio-economic group than their peers in North East ISD, Alamo Heights ISD, and parts of Northside ISD. Most have fewer resources in their homes, and that disparity is echoed in the halls of their schools.
“In my opinion, the purpose of the bond and TRE is really to give students academic opportunities they didn’t have before,” Bernal said. “It’s about making things better, more fair, and more just.”
SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez clearly sees the disparity when he visits campuses in other districts.
“I’ve never seen (inequities) so blatant as I’ve seen them here,” Martinez said.
While one might argue that education is not about bright, shiny facilities or cutting-edge technology, there is a reason districts spend money the way they do. There’s a reason districts update facilities. Unless wealthier districts are being flippant with their funds, one can infer that updating facilities is beneficial to students.
Some updates will have a direct effect on the learning environment.
“Air conditioning, plumbing, and all of that is not sexy to talk about, but it’s so important for the learning environment,” said district spokeswoman Leslie Price.
Anyone who thinks that HVAC doesn’t affect a learning environment should try to concentrate on algebra in an un-airconditioned room in late August or teach literature while yelling over a rattling radiator.
Back in the library, an outdated bank of desktop computers represents one of the school’s tech centers. Half of the monitors have gone out since the start of the year less than a month ago. Price would like to see a more current tech center, where laptops and tablets allow students to sit in groups and work collaboratively.
The TRE will be used to bring the district’s technology into the 21st century, but first the schools need the infrastructure. Wireless technology doesn’t work without WiFi. Putting new wires, routers, and outlets into leaky ceilings and walls would be ill advised.
Some have questioned the high priority SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez is placing on tech. Price, however, sees the value.
Most of these students do not have access to workplace technology at home. Only a select few have smartphones and tablets. For them, technology is engaging and fun, but has very little connection to their education. While there will always be a need for basic skills like writing, technology has changed both the way we problem solve and the problems we encounter. Price wants students to be comfortable with all the tools that can be used to meet 21st century challenges.
“Kids need access to these really high-tech pieces of equipment so they can make those choices,” Price said.
At J.T. Brackenridge Elementary School there is no technology to be found. Teachers use chalkboards. Pipes rust through and leak into the classrooms below. Corroded plumbing was visible across all three campuses we visited. Science labs that have been outdated and insufficient for years no longer function, because sinks and eye wash stations are out of commission. In the machine room at Tafolla, wear and tear was obvious, and the floor told a calcified history of past leaks.
J.T. Brackenridge principal Jennifer Maestas has a certain gallows humor about the situation. She and her staff compare the school to a cruise ship – the outer rooms have windows, and the inner rooms do not.
Maestas has noticed that the teachers in the inner rooms take longer breaks, and seem more eager to get out of their classrooms, probably because their classrooms feel like caves.
“It would be lovely if every classroom had natural light,” Maestas said.
Along the same lines of outdated and worn infrastructure at Tafolla and J.T. Brackenridge, Lanier High School also lacks windows. One teacher hung posters of windows around the room to cheer up the atmosphere while another hung twinkle lights.
“You can tell teachers make the most of what they have,” Lanier principal Laura Cooper said.
Perhaps that extra effort and creativity needed to duct tape carpet in place and coordinate with campus maintenance to have WD40 applied to squealing HVAC units would be better spent on instruction. The teachers at Lanier, Tafolla, J.T. Brackenridge, and the ten other campuses slated for major renovation would probably agree.
Top image: The air conditioner in Tafolla Middle School’s auditorium is leaking and has caused the floor to warp. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.