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Thursday, Oct. 1, 2009 10:07 am

Three into one won’t go

The new high school debate

The feasibility committee ruled out any option that would eliminate the north side's pride, Lanphier High School.
PHOTO BY DAVE HINE

To build or not to build, that is the question. The answer will depend not on the review of high school facilities needs underway at School District 186. It will be determined by the voters — appropriately, if you are concerned about democracy, inappropriately if you are concerned about education.

Common sense and consultants made clear to the district a variety of options for new and refurbished structures that could leave the district with one, two or three high schools. The popular choice seems to be retain the now-traditional three-school setup. Whether upgraded or replaced, the new versions would have the same capacity — roughly 1,400 or so students — and presumably the same basic facilities, this to ensure that each side of town will retain its “own” high school, and that those buildings be alike in essentials.

What could be more fair? Nothing — except that fairness is not the only criterion of educational policy. The public discussion to date has touched only tangentially on students’ needs, being preoccupied instead with local politics, which is driven by concerns of a wholly different kind.

At least one infers they are. What has been most interesting about the debate has not been what has been said — in district announcements, interviews and public comment recorded by the press — but what has not, at least not said out loud and in plain words.

For instance, the feasibility committee set up by the district ruled out any option that called for razing Lanphier, whose students would be absorbed by a new and larger Springfield High and an expanded Southeast. “Going from three competitive groups to two. I’m not sure what happens to the identity of the third,” said one committee member murkily to the press. Meaning in plain English that North Side kids are not going to share a school with those . . . well, you know.

Even suggesting a new building for SHS in New Springfield reportedly warmed the blood of the audience at the community presentation at the Hoogland Center on Sept. 15. Common sense dictates that Springfield be replaced if any high school is — it is much the oldest of the existing schools. Alas, that would leave it (as was noted during that meeting) the district’s Cinderella compared to its ugly stepsisters, Lanphier and Southeast. Plainly, a new building for SHS will be realized only at the cost of substantial upgrades to the other two, even though that raises the total program cost to daunting figures.

The discussion reveals the deepness of the divide between the city’s neighborhoods. They are rooted in class resentments, complicated by race. If people’s distrust of the district’s ability, even willingness, to treat each part of town fairly (which is not quite the same thing as treating them equally) then the solution is obvious: Build one very big high school that every student will attend. That option, however, was ruled out from the start.

“We’re looking for equity,” said one gentleman at the meeting at Hoogland. “We want all our kids to have access to the latest technologies and materials.” Of course, “equity” may be achieved at the cost of mediocrity. The district is unlikely to be able to equip three schools with the same level of pedagogic whiz-bangery provided by the state’s top public high schools. Indeed, 186 will be stretched to equip even one school so handsomely unless it pools its limited resources in one building.

It has been pointed out that having only one high school would leave students with fewer opportunities to participate in competitive activities at the varsity level. One understands the fear, high school being the last opportunity that life gives most of us mediocrities a chance to feel like we are not.

Competition in another context is the concern behind the objection most often raised, which is that a single high school would have to compete in tougher IHSA athletics divisions. The reasoning is specious, as a single high school would be able to draw upon the whole district for talent, and thus be as able to compete against any other school in its enrollment class. The reluctance to even think about doing so suggests that a lot of people are happy to never test Springfield kids against the best in Illinois, merely the best from the southeast or west or north side of Springfield.

Nothing brings out the small-towner in Illinoisans — and that includes those who live in the small towns known as suburbs — the way their schools do. The proposed high school building program in this one could have been greeted as a project to raise the standard of Springfield public education, not a zero-sum game in which envy and local jealousies leave participants more willing to lose than to see their enemy win. When games are played in that way, everyone loses.

Back from the dead: In “Stopped by a train” (Sept. 17) I erred in stating that former SSU history prof. John H. Keiser had left this world. I am happy to report that it was only the world of work that he has left; he is living in retirement after many years as president of Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State University).

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com.
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