Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Failing buildings stack against students’ success

By DOUG CARDER, Herald Senior Writer | 10/23/2013

[Editor’s note: The following is the first in a two-part series that examines the condition of the facilities in the Ottawa school district.]

On days when science teacher Kathy Egbert’s students are conducting experiments, she can be seen walking down the hall carrying a five-gallon bucket of water.

[Editor’s note: The following is the first in a two-part series that examines the condition of the facilities in the Ottawa school district.]

On days when science teacher Kathy Egbert’s students are conducting experiments, she can be seen walking down the hall carrying a five-gallon bucket of water.

Egbert’s biology classroom has a sink, but no ability to void the water without it bubbling up through a drain in the hallway floor and creating a puddle in that corridor of Ottawa High School, 1120 S. Ash St., Ottawa.

“The drain line comes down the center of the hallway, and somewhere between that end of the line and this end of the line, the drain pipe collapsed,” Ryan Cobbs, OHS principal, said Wednesday as he pointed to either end of the hall. “We had to shut down the water in Mrs. Egbert’s Room 112.”

A tub of water in a sink and water in a handwashing station are used for course work. And when the experiments are done, the water is vacuumed up or scooped into a bucket and carried to the custodial closet where it is dumped down the drain, Cobbs said.

“We carry water back and forth a lot to make sure our kids have access to water,” Cobbs said.

Jeanne Stroh said she recalls hearing about the woeful water situation not long after she arrived in July as the school district’s new superintendent.

“The first thing I said was, ‘We have to fix it,’” Stroh said.

Then Stroh was hit with sticker shock, she said.

“I can’t remember the cost, but it was terribly expensive, and we would have to rip up the floor,” Stroh said. “I thought, ‘Do we rip up the floor and spend this big chunk of money now, or do we wait?’”

The repair project is just one of numerous renovations that would have to be completed in the 45-year-old building to bring it into a 21st-century learning environment, school administrators said.

Stroh and the school board have launched a facilities upgrade initiative, based on the results of a community survey by ETC Institute that gauged public opinion about what renovations might win community support. The survey, delivered to the district in March by the Olathe-based research firm, showed 84 percent of respondents said they would support improvements to OHS, with 61 percent in favor of remodeling the high school.

BALANCING WANTS, NEEDS

School principals and site councils have been putting together a list of needs for their buildings. Those lists will be reviewed by a facilities committee of 22 people who will be charged with separating “the wants from the needs,” Stroh said, in addition to identifying facility needs that were not on the original lists. Stroh is gathering names from principals, school board members, civic groups and other segments of the community to be appointed to the committee, she said.

“What may be a need in 2013 might have been a want five years ago,” Stroh said. “I think it’s time to get [district patrons] involved in looking at what are our needs and what do we want for our kids, because they are all our kids.”

The committee will be representative of the community, with the only requirement being that every committee member must reside in the Ottawa school district, she said.

“We want a good cross-section of retirees, business people, parents who have kids who went through the [Ottawa] school system and parents who have kids in the school system now,” Stroh said. “They are our community. They are the owners of our schools.”

While district administrators and site councils are compiling lists of facility, equipment and technology needs, the district is approaching the initiative with the objective of building community consensus, Stroh said. It’s part of a community-engagement campaign that culminates with a possible bond issue going before voters in November 2014.

Stroh is quick to point out a bond issue is one of several funding streams that might be tapped to achieve the facility upgrades. The funding mechanism will be left up to the 22-member facilities committee being organized in the coming weeks, Stroh said, adding she would like the committee to be formed by next month. Anyone interested in serving on the committee can call the central district office at (785) 229-8010.

“We want to listen to everyone’s ideas,” Stroh said. “The big thing — and I spoke with principals about this last week — is I don’t want anybody to think that any [school district official] has in their head what this is going to cost or look like. If the committee says, ‘We need these things, but there’s no way we can do it now — we might have to wait five years,’ then we will honor whatever the committee decides to do.”

The drainage problem in Egbert’s room at the high school is one of a long laundry list of challenges Cobbs and his staff face at the high school, which was built in 1967 with two career and technical education buildings added in 1977 and another hallway added to the school in 1991, along with a few other improvements along the way. The problem, Cobbs pointed out, is that some of those improvements — like the metal career and technical education (CTEC) buildings that were supposed to be a temporary, 10-year solution in 1977 — now are more than 35 years old.

“The renovations that were supposed to happen in 1987 didn’t happen. And they didn’t happen in 1997. And they didn’t happen in 2007,” Cobbs said of the outdated buildings that house auto shop, agriculture, welding and other industrial classes.

IN NEED OF AN OVERHAUL

A white sedan was hoisted on a lift Wednesday morning in an area of one of the technical education buildings that served as a combined shop and classroom, with a handful of desks.

“We don’t have the space and materials that we need,” Cobbs said. “Eudora, for example, has an incredible auto body program. When they walk out of there, they actually have an idea of what it is truly like to work at a car dealership [as a mechanic]. Our kids are coming out of here with the skills that they need, but what they’re not getting is the understanding of how it works in that type of corporate environment.”

Other classrooms in the career and technical education buildings were equally cramped and ill-equipped, a tour of the facilities revealed Wednesday.

“We want industrial-grade equipment, and our kids need industrial-grade classrooms,” Cobbs said, “So when they walk out of here, they know what it’s like to work in that industry.”

The technical buildings also present a problem in that every 51 minutes the potential is real for 175 students to be leaving the main building and going to the tech buildings, while another 175 students are exiting the tech buildings and headed back to the main building, Cobbs said.

“Do we have 350 kids outside the building at one time? No, because some of those students are changing classes within the same buildings, but the potential is there,” Cobbs said. “There are a considerable number of students who exit and enter the buildings, and that presents a real security concern.”

The equipment in the culinary classroom at the high school also is less than appetizing, Cobbs said.

“The culinary classroom was renovated back when they did the north hallway addition in 1991,” Cobbs said. “The idea behind career and technical education is that we are teaching from an industrial-quality perspective, and this is certainly not an industrial-style kitchen. It’s more like your home kitchen.”

Culinary classes today are about much more than knowing how to prepare food, Cobbs said.

“It’s event planning management,” he said. “We are actually catering events, and to have kids learn how to do that on what would basically be your home cooking station is not necessarily where we want to be. There are a lot of updates that need to happen in our culinary program. That’s why we look at our career and tech ed, and say it would be nice to have the facilities to expand our programs the way we really want to.”

CHOOSING RIGHT PATH

Cobbs and Stroh talked about the district’s ability to serve not only its own students but students from schools in the area by upgrading its career and technical education facilities. Cobbs said it would be nice to add a wing on the north side where all the career and technical education classes could be under one roof with the rest of the school.

“[State] Senate Bill 155 allows for kids to get college credits and the state pays for a portion of that,” Stroh said. “We want to be on the cutting edge in terms of career and technical education. There’s a huge need for those jobs, and we really think if we can offer the right things and the right partnerships, we will have a higher graduation rate. I’ve talked with other Franklin County superintendents, and they are very interested in a partnership with us, because we are centrally located and we have Neosho County Community College and Ottawa University here.

“It would be fantastic if we could work with the districts that surround us to provide those opportunities for our kids as well as kids out in the county,” she said. “And we can get state funding for that, so it just wouldn’t be on USD 290’s shoulders. Career and technical education [upgrades] will be a huge focus of this whole [facility improvement] process.”

Cobbs thinks most district patrons aren’t aware of the building’s deficiencies because teachers do a good job of working with available resources, he said.

“I think that we do a good job of masking our buildings’ deficiencies,” Cobbs said. “Teachers do a ton of work to make them as minimal as possible. Nobody knows Mrs. Egbert is carrying five-gallon buckets down the hallway, and she doesn’t complain about it.”

Cobbs does not think the district needs to build a new high school, but some renovations and upgrades are sorely needed, he said.

“I certainly understand that’s asking a lot of the community,” Cobbs said. “More than anything, I think at this point, I just want people to become aware of what our building fails to offer our kids, because of its current structure and set-up and what it could offer if we made some changes.”  

[Editor’s note: To learn more about the needs of the science, physical education, performing arts, and library sections of the high school, as well as the needs of other buildings in the school district — complete with a facilities upgrade timeline — see The Herald’s Weekender edition.]

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