The same students who raised $5,000 last year for a Racine, Wisconsin food pantry sit with their lunch trays on their laps in the hallways and stairwells at Walden III middle and high school.
With every square foot converted to classroom use, there is no lunchroom in Walden, a school building that dates to around 1863. As one of the U.S. Department of Education’s 2011-2012 Teaching Ambassador Fellows, I had the opportunity to visit the school to learn about its infrastructure challenges with Assistant Secretary of Communications and Outreach Peter Cunningham and regional OCO staffer Julie Ewart earlier this month.
Space is not the only thing at a premium at Walden — so is heat. According to the teacher leading our tour, Walden’s antiquated boiler system creates temperature variations of up to 30 degrees from one room to the next in the winter. Yet, with great pride a senior girl describes how students raised funds to purchase insulation for a home adjacent to the school grounds. She talks about how shocked she and fellow classmates were when they learned their neighbor was shivering in an un-insulated house. The students saw a need and acted on it.
As we climbed the creaking steps to the second floor AP English classroom, we noticed that the orange carpeting on the upstairs hallway is buckled and ripped in many places, reinforcing the theme that this building is tired and in desperate need of renovation.
During the visit, we watched a short video highlighting philanthropic projects completed by Walden students. The video, shown on a newly installed SMARTBoard, drew its power from the only functioning electric outlet in this classroom. This single power source looks precarious at best; there are way too many cords running to other parts of the classroom from an auxiliary powerstrip.
Students at Walden are like children everywhere. They are resilient and resourceful. These students are committed to helping their community. Which leads me to the question–to what degree is the greater community, Racine and beyond, committed to helping them?
While students are achieving at Walden, they and their teachers need to overcome challenges of their historic but ancient facility that are barriers to learning — or worse, accidents waiting to happen — every day. The American Jobs Act, which would fund some of the long overdue renovations in Racine and across the country, could help provide the means necessary to overcome these challenges, and ultimately allow Walden students and teachers to focus on education and giving back to the community.
Leah Lechleiter-Luke is a Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow who teaches English and Spanish in Mauston, Wisconsin.