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Detroit teacher: ‘How can you teach or learn in conditions like these?’

BY   January 14, 2016 at 6:26 PM EDT
Black tarp covers damaged gym floor at Spain Elementary-Middle School in Detroit. Photo by Janet Bass, AFT.

Black tarp covers damaged gym floor at Spain Elementary-Middle School in Detroit. Photo by Janet Bass, AFT.

Editor’s Note: More than 60 schools in Detroit closed earlier this week after teachers called in sick in protest of rodent and mold problems. While some city and state officials were sympathetic to the teachers’ pleas, they also criticized teachers for leaving students with no place to go and taking away instruction time.

Lakia Wilson, a school counselor at Spain Elementary-Middle School in Detroit, defended the teachers’ actions and explains why the conditions make it difficult to teach and for students to learn.

The odious smell of mold and mildew hits you like a brick wall when you step through the front doors at Spain Elementary-Middle School in Detroit.

I have been at Spain for 19 years, first as a first-grade teacher, then, after earning a master’s degree in counseling, as a school counselor. When I first started, it was a school any city would be proud to have in its district. Today, it’s the poster child for neglect and indifference to a quality teaching and learning environment for our 500 students.teacherslounge

The gym is closed because half of the floor is buckled and the other half suffered so much rainwater damage from the dripping ceiling that it became covered with toxic black mold. Instead of professionally addressing the problem, a black tarp simply was placed over the entire area like a Band-Aid. That area of the school has been condemned.

The once beautiful pool sits empty because no one has come to fix it. The playground is off-limits because a geyser of searing hot steam explodes out of the ground. What do our kids do for exercise with no gym, playground or pool? They walk or run in the halls. Seriously. Our pre-K through eighth graders move like mall walkers.

Exposed wires hang from missing ceiling tiles. Watermarks from leaks abound. Kids either sit in freezing classrooms with their coats on or strip off layers because of stifling heat.

How can you teach or learn in conditions like these?

What can I say when a child or parent asks me why their school smells, or why can’t they have regular recess with a gym teacher like kids in nicer communities? What can I say to a preschool parent whose child is in a classroom located, believe it or not, in the condemned area where the mold-infested gym is located?

Our complaints have fallen on deaf ears, which makes me feel abandoned. I feel a huge void because I recognize the deficits that are created when my students, parents and colleagues are not afforded the basic necessities to perform our best. Who doesn’t want to provide a world-class, 21st century education to our future generations?

Every child and school employee in Detroit — for that matter, anywhere in America — deserves to be treated with respect. It is disrespectful when we bring these environmental and learning conditions to the attention of state officials (our school district is run by a governor-appointed emergency manager) and are ignored.

The amazing thing is that the educators in Detroit public schools come to school every day despite these disgusting conditions and do the best job we can to give our students a great education. We want to give our students the chance to “make it.” For that, we get denounced for exposing the conditions that the district and the governor want to keep quiet. That’s just wrong.

I know I have a lot of support from the community in my fight for my kids and their education. And hopefully soon, I will be able to walk into my school to an environment that’s welcoming, safe, healthy and conducive to teaching and learning. That’s my dream, and I’ll do everything I possibly can to make it come true.