Last spring (2015), when I first heard about the Cross Keys cluster and the overcrowding issue, I didn’t understand the gravity of the situation. I heard Kim Gocke, founder of the Cross Keys Foundation and a parent of a student at Woodward Elementary School, speaking at a DeKalb County Schools Board of Education Meeting (during the Community Input Session) about how there was a “crisis” in the cluster. I heard Mpaza Kapembwa and Yehimi Cambron, both distinguished alumni from Cross Keys High School, echo the same calls for help from the district.

But I didn’t understand. What’s so bad about trailers? I’m sure some of you have the same questions.

I went to school in temporary buildings throughout my high school career and never thought the conditions were that bad. We had bathrooms, lockers, internet, science labs, a media center/cafeteria, massive copiers, teacher lounges, and all the other necessary amenities for high school students and teachers within these temporary quad buildings.

But that’s not how “temporary buildings” have been done in the Cross Keys cluster.

At Cross Keys High School, our trailers were not clean at the beginning of school year 2015-2016. They had dirt all over them, there were wires hanging out of the ceiling, many classrooms did not have white boards, projector boards (Promethean boards), computers, internet, or air conditioning (among other things). Apparently this isn’t uncommon in Region 1 of DCSS, as I’ve read here and here.

The school year started, students came to class, and teachers had to welcome students into trailers that had barely been cleared by the county for occupancy. It wasn’t until weeks into the extremely hot school year that the air conditioning was fixed, and it wasn’t until weeks into the school year that the trailers had internet capability.

But the problems have not ended. They continue even today, reducing the overall educational equality with schools that don’t have these issues.

Loss of Instructional Time

Instructional time is steadily reduced because of the way trailers are situated and maintained at our high school.

One teacher’s room flooded during the first hard rain in September, so her classes had to be relocated for the day in a school that is already 300 students over capacity. There was no way for students to be notified prior to the class, so students trekked out to her classroom in the rain, realized the class had been relocated, and then had to find that new location.

Even now, our trailers that are located behind the gym have no access to a bathroom. The closest bathroom is located inside of the school, but because we must keep all our doors locked due to safety protocol, students must walk all the way around to the front of the school to use the restroom. The journey there would take the best part of ten minutes – not to mention returning to class. (Even if students used the restroom in between classes, they would be late to class if they were coming from a trailer or going to a trailer, still contributing to a loss of instructional time.)

Sometimes we have substitute teachers that are assigned to trailer classrooms, but they aren’t given a key or easy access to the classroom. This means that more class time is lost while substitute teachers try to find their way into the classroom.

Additionally, substitute teachers have been found to be missing from the classroom that they are assigned to (the reasons for this vary), so this means that students have – at times – been unsupervised in a trailer for entire class periods. Since individual trailers do not have as many passers-by as classrooms inside the building, other teachers have sometimes not been able to discover these issues. (I have heard these accounts from students from different grades and different classes, plus I personally have discovered three unattended classes just in my hallway this year because of miscommunication errors with substitutes.)

Reduction of Educational Quality

Another teacher’s trailer classroom leaked when it rained. In his classroom, because of the rotting wood and general disrepair of the trailer, tiny plants grew up from the windowsill next to the teacher’s desk. When the contractor began the work on the trailer, they discovered there was a massive termite issue simultaneously occurring. It had to be evacuated for weeks while the county attempted to repair his trailer.

This teacher had to hold his classes in different rooms every class period for weeks. He had to inform his classes of these changes daily because, many times, it was in a different location. Much of this had to be communicated by word-of-mouth, announcements over the P.A., or signs posted to different classrooms.

Besides the general time wasted for students, this teacher has experienced the additional work this brings without much benefit to the students. Teachers at CKHS are required to post lesson plans in every classroom, post the Georgia Standards of Excellence that they are teaching in every classroom, and post their essential questions for the day. This – in addition to bringing student books and student work and lesson plans to every different classroom – adds up to a lot of additional work, lowering morale and expending energy that could be better spent elsewhere. For example, this extra time and energy could be spent retrieving laptop carts, creating innovative lesson plans, collaboratively planning with colleagues, tracking student progress, etc. (All this while not having access to networked copiers – which DCSS is currently addressing — see below.)

One teacher at CKHS — who didn’t have a white board or computer or projector – taped a piece of paper to the wall during the first few weeks of school in order to teach her kids math. She didn’t have the privilege of having to decide whether to use response-clickers or laptops to teach her students because she simply had to figure out how to provide examples of mathematical problems without the bare essentials.

Without basic tools like the internet or a computer, it has greatly reduced the types of activities that could be implemented – not to mention the inability to check email, contact parents, take attendance easily, quickly throw up a cool video or interesting article, or allow students to work on the world-wide web.

Students and teachers in the 21st century need to have easy access to technology and uninterrupted class time if we are going to be competitive with schools down the street, not to mention schools internationally. Solving these issues would help address the achievement gap that exists between students of color and students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

The list goes on.

At Cross Keys HS, we have only one computer lab with 30 computers and 20 computers available in the media center. We also have 7 laptop carts (each with 20-30 laptops), but teachers in the trailers cannot use these carts – unless they wanted to roll them through the mud and the grass. Reserving the one lab is difficult, given the fact that we have over 1500 students.

We also use the computer labs for testing, which means that this lab and the media center is often used for Student Learning Objective (SLOs) pre-tests and post-tests each semester, STAR reader assessments at the beginning and end of the semester, and any other online state- or county-mandated assessment. Because we are on block scheduling, this occurs twice as often. Needless to say, reserving a computer lab is not easy for teachers.

What Can Be Done?

I don’t teach at the elementary schools or middle schools in the cluster, so I can’t speak for them, but many teachers and parents spoke out about the deplorable conditions their children have to experience in trailers at schools like Cary Reynolds Elementary School or Dresden Elementary School.

If we want to figure out why CK is a “priority” school (a school identified by the state of Georgia as not meeting the standards in things like graduation rates, test scores, etc.), I believe some of the reasons can be explained in this post. When students don’t feel valued, when students can’t simply come to school and study uninterrupted by chaos, they are more inclined to skip or drop out.

Regardless of what we decide in the long term, we need to address the issues raised here. Redistricting can’t be done instantly. Constructing new buildings can’t be done instantly — though we need both redistricting and new construction. However, we can greatly improve the experiences of students and teachers in our trailers at Cross Keys (and throughout the cluster) by doing the following:

  1. Replace the old single-wide trailers with updated, fully-outfitted quad buildings with restrooms (ideally while NEW construction is occurring)
  2. Ensure each teacher has a working desktop or laptop
  3. Ensure each trailer has internet capability (and maintain this properly)
  4. Ensure each trailer has Promethean board (or SmartBoard) access
  5. Provide laptop or iPad carts that can be stored inside of the temporary quads
  6. Improve access to temporary buildings with gravel and/or paving paths to each building

*DeKalb County Schools has been very responsive to the issues raised regarding the copiers which I discussed in this previous post. Three new copiers have arrived just this week. We are waiting on the district to network these copiers and replace the electrical outlets before they are usable, but I am optimistic. A huge thank you to Mr. Gary Brantley, Chief Information Officer for DCSS, for responding quickly to this.

An additional thank you to the Technology Office for addressing some of the concerns regarding computer speed and internet accessibility. To see the issues we are dealing with on our laptops, click here to view this YouTube video I recorded of them. Hopefully they will be able to solve these issues as well!