Educators or entrepreneurs?

Administrators, teachers, students and parents say they must be both at Southwest High School

Some kids at Southwest High School are probably sitting in the same desks their parents did, considering that some of the old-fashioned chairs with tablet arms for note-taking date as far back as the '50s.

Only a handful of classrooms have been updated to keep up with wear-and-tear and to provide kids with the latest technology so they're prepared for careers beyond high school.

Currently, Southwest High School, 3414 W. 47th St., strives to revamp five classrooms yearly, out of 68 altogether. But it was only able to refurbish three this year. Fixing up classrooms is just one of the school's goals to address its basic needs - within the classroom, learning materials and staff. Each classroom renovation costs $3,000.

It's part of the school's four-year plan called &#8220Charting Our Own Course,” which maps out priorities for a community fund-raising campaign. This is the third year the plan has relied entirely on donations. In its first year, it raised $144,000 and $182,000 last year.

The school's dependence on the community to subsidize the essentials is evidence of the budget crisis and just one example of its impact on schools. Southwest took the initiative to devise a strategy independent of the district because of dwindling funds. Budget cuts in Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) over the past five years total $100 million, according to MPS Chief Financial Officer Marj Rolland.

Southwest Principal Bill Smith said that the school survives only because of the resourcefulness of its staffers and generous community, however, &#8220Are we adequately funding education?” Smith challenged, &#8220The question is, how long can we last this way?”

No long-term funding

The current funding situation doesn't look at long-term needs. &#8220We have to raise money all the time. I'm tired of bake sales and silent auctions. I'm constantly begging,” said dance instructor Colleen Callahan-Russell, who spends $1,000 each year on CDs, videos, costumes, and other costs here and there.

She said that while corporations usually employ a fundraiser, teachers are also forced to be entrepreneurs under current budget constraints instead of spending time refining teaching and assessment activities. Bake sales keep the doors open. She also charges students $10 for her class, New Moves.

Furthermore, in the eight years she's been at Southwest, Callahan-Russell's classes have increased from a handful to 40 kids. Students don't have enough space to extend their arms and legs.

Students must also peddle goods such as chocolate, Happenings coupon books and Blue Sky Guides to keep arts and athletics programs afloat, for example.

To further stretch funds, Southwest students go on fewer field trips than they used to. The school repairs or recycles old equipment like worn-out desk seats that should be discarded. Also, part-time Volunteer Coordinator Michele Jansen put together a wish list of teachers' needs and wants. She hopes for donations for the ever-growing list. Right now, they need supplies such as Kleenex, copy paper, batteries, bandages, brooms, drawing paper, envelopes, DVD players, erasers, dry-erase markers, file folders, boxes, glue, paper towels and more.

But supplies aren't all teachers need. With bigger classes, they need classroom support, too. &#8220It's great to have someone to sit in the classroom or set up labs or even [help maintain] discipline,” said Jansen. &#8220It's nice to have folks from the neighborhood or those who're retired. Sometimes just a presence in the classroom is helpful.”

Doing the math

The future seems bleak when considering the effects of declining enrollment. Next year, Southwest is projected to shrink from 1,640 to 1,575 students. Yet some class sizes are up to 40 students, and operating costs continue to rise. In 1999, a teacher cost $61,000. Now teachers cost $85,000.

On top of already inadequate resources and insufficient funds, about 37 percent of the student body is in poverty. There are 173 English Language Learners (ELL) where there were once 500, Smith said.

Southwest's total budget is $7,090,017 without special education funding. That provides for 119 licensed professionals, including teachers, guidance counselors, social workers, part-time staffers and administrators. Of those, 70 are teachers.

Smith said that as an administrator he walks a tightrope. His job is to make things work, despite budget constraints. But, as a manager, he said he wants to say no to operating without the necessities - unless more funding comes through. &#8220I believe we have made some sacrifices. We don't have some of the programs we need. I don't think we hurt the children, but sometimes we haven't helped them,” he said.

Making ends meet

Despite the looming problems, teachers are finding ways to make things work.

&#8220There's no question that this is a crisis. The last few budget cycles have been disastrous for education. My average class size has gone up from 23 to 35,” said English teacher David West. &#8220The story, though, is that in spite of all this, there's no panic. Teachers keep pitching to the students in front of them. They do more with less.”

&#8220I spend a lot of my own money and my own time to create meaningful activities for the students. We spend a majority of our time working out of the text, so it's powerful to find a hook that can get the students energized before we start some new material,” said math teacher David McMayer, who spends $2,000 out of his pocket for class materials. &#8220Without the activities, my class is just assign homework, check homework, rinse and repeat.”

While making do with less can be daunting he remains committed to teaching.

&#8220I stay teaching because it's my job,” he said. &#8220I figured out about 10 years ago that this is what I do best. I really like it. I would have to have a really good offer to consider leaving the field.”