Last week I walked into West High School for the first time since our daughter, Kate, graduated in 2001.
I'd been warned I might be taken aback by how much the place had changed in a decade. But in fact, I had the opposite reaction. Based on my few hours there, it doesn't seem to have changed much at all.
It had the same delightful, eclectic, intellectual vibe and ethnic diversity one would expect at the public high school located nearest the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.
Its student body of 2,100 — largest of the city's four high schools — hails from 55 countries. It routinely has more semifinalists for National Merit Scholarships, 26 last year, than any school in Wisconsin.
And yes, it has issues that have existed for years, the most serious being the gap between high-achievers from the UW gene pool and beyond and an increasing number of struggling students whose economic status qualifies them for subsidized lunches. Some say West is a school lacking a sizable "middle class" of average kids.
But what really caught my attention during my visit was the condition of the building.
West was built in 1929 on what was then the city's western edge. Now, with many miles of developed Madison to its west, it has a distinctly urban feel, hard on bustling Regent Street. It's an imposing brick castle, not at all like the sprawling, set-back-from-the-street schools typical of the suburbs. West is, well, literally old-school.
Inside, the place is showing its age, just as it was doing 10 or 15 years ago. It is not for lack of effort by the folks who work and study there. It is neat, clean and well-lit. One gets the feeling its keepers bring their best bubble-gum and baling-wire spirit to making the old building work.
I was reintroduced to West last week by a program in which people from the community spend a half-day in schools across the city once a year under the auspices of the Foundation for Madison Public Schools, which works to encourage businesses to "adopt" schools for year-round philanthropy. One example is Webcrafters Inc., a printing company on the east side's Fordem Avenue, which for years has bought furniture and supplies and paid for programs at nearby Mendota Elementary School.
For my so-called "principal for a day" assignment, I spent time in the office of West High Principal Ed Holmes and clambered up and down West's many stairwells and back hallways with student guides and other visitors. (For the record, we all agreed we were in way over our heads visiting the advanced classes in physics and statistics.)
After a morning of being scattered in various schools, the "principals" met with school district officials and others for a luncheon to urge city business leaders to get and stay involved.
Noble people engaged in a noble cause, I thought over lunch, but why it is necessary to support basic school infrastructure needs with such a herculean effort? And why has it seemingly always been so?
Back in 1988, when I edited projects for the Wisconsin State Journal, I worked with reporter Ron Seely, who wrote an award-winning series that uncovered deteriorating and often dangerous public school buildings across the state.
Seely and a state building inspector traveled widely and found scores of safety problems and at least a minor violation in every school they visited. The front page featured a picture of children playing in front of an elementary school captioned: "This grade school in Avoca was built in 1876, the year George Custer was killed at the Little Big Horn." Yes, that made the point. We reported there were 300 schools or parts of schools in use that had been built before 1925.
That series had an impact, prompting legislation to make buildings safer and sparking a wave of construction. But I recall thinking it ironic even then that so many business people I visited through the years occupied opulent offices but were apparently OK with subjecting their kids, well, at least somebody's kids, to these shoddy conditions. How does that work?
In a story about rejected school referendums, Seely wrote: "Experts say many voters abhor added taxes, have a sentimental attachment to old buildings, have no school-age children or distrust school officials." And that was back when "tea party" only meant the event in Boston.
Back at West, Principal Holmes tells me how the school's overgrown and long-abandoned tennis courts adjacent to the school symbolize the problem. "You have people coming into Badgers games and come right by the building and (those courts) make it look like an abandoned school almost," Holmes says.
Certainly, doing things right is expensive. West High needs $17.4 million in capital spending over the next five years, nearly half of which would be for behind-the-scenes mechanical costs, according to a new school district administration estimate.
Then, too, administrators don't help their cause. Last year, Susan Troller of The Capital Times reported that school officials had trouble accounting for precisely how all the money from a school maintenance referendum was being spent. That certainly doesn't help.
Still, this inattention to school buildings was rampant long before the demonization of public schools became a parlor game for Republicans.
A UW-Madison education professor and expert on K-12 issues offers a plausible explanation for this neglectful maintenance. Over the past two decades, school leaders have focused almost exclusively on measuring outcomes, says Richard Halverson.
"What we need to do is focus all of our attention on the practices and outcomes of learning," Halverson says has been the message. Programs like "No Child Left Behind" and "Race to the Top" have been at the forefront of how we talk about schools.
So, he says, "as we have been talking more and more about internal process, the discussion about infrastructure, about building and grounds, has largely just evaporated."
"When you go to the big education conferences almost all the discussions are about how we improve teaching and learning and student outcomes," Halverson continues. "But one of the outcomes whenever you shine a light, other places are dark, and the dark places now include infrastructure."
Halverson says the Obama administration started out trying to make rebuilding the nation's educational infrastructure a legacy accomplishment, "but it has just gotten no traction in the public discourse." (Coincidentally, labor and school officials held a press conference at West last week to urge passage of the part of Obama's jobs proposal that includes money for school infrastructure.)
So, Halverson says, the focus is on techniques, technology, even nutrition before any discussion of infrastructure: "It really hasn't sort of emerged in the public consciousness that if the rain is leaking on students' heads, they are not going to do well on the tests either."
Halverson's analysis makes sense.
Decade after decade, neglecting the buildings in which we expect our children to learn does not.