I’ve never owned a new car. In fact, my car buying history typically involves auto body shops and salvage titles. We buy them cheap and drive them until they die. It’s a cycle driven by economic necessity. In the context of poverty and scarcity, the allure of a new car is powerful. It’s an allure that draws on all the senses – the look of a flawless paint job, the feel of new upholstery, the sound of a factory-tuned engine. Most of all, we know the smell of a new car. It’s a smell we associate with prosperity and new success.
When I was a teenager, my mom drove an old Dodge Caravan. At least one summer our minivan had no AC, leaving us to cruise around in 110 degree Arizona heat with all the windows down. Then we got a brand new car, courtesy of my great-grandma. All the bells and whistles and bought with cash. The psychological impact of that gift to our family was dramatic. Owning a new car debt-free was about much more than simply having one less expense to worry about. It didn’t just bring relief. It infused our family with excitement and enthusiasm. Our family income wasn’t transformed, but you wouldn’t have known it based on our new sense of optimism.
The past few years have been tough for California schools. The funding cuts and rolling deferrals for schools associated with the economic downturn felt akin to driving a car in the summer heat without AC. Educators’ sense of scarcity has calcified. Money helps, and certainly the improved student funding in the state has begun to ease organizational strain. Yet marginal increases to a schools’ revenue stream doesn’t guarantee a newfound sense of optimism and hope. School systems need some pageantry, rituals of rebirth and new hope that provide a symbolic break with leaner times. Who is going to pull into the driveway with a new car?
I saw that pageantry heighten excitement and transform expectations twice last week as Santa Ana inaugurated two new facilities. The first was the opening of Santa Ana’s first dependent charter school, Advanced Learning Academy (ALA). I consider ALA a bold move by the district to flex its innovative muscles to introduce a new school choice based entirely in project-based and blended learning that focuses on personalized learning paths for students. The school’s architecture matches its instructional philosophy. The brand new furniture, crisply designed learning spaces, and abundance of technology brought heightened excitement amongst students and parents. That excitement was matched later in the week, during the inauguration of a new sports complex. In the midst of new scoreboards and freshly manicured playing fields, we enjoyed an old-fashioned face-off as each of the district’s high school marching bands took turns showcasing their skills. Guests mingled under the shade tents with refreshments in hand and smiles on their faces. It was nothing short of a party.
Perhaps we as educators sometimes overplay the narrative of scarcity. It’s a defense mechanism that is rooted in the realities of shifting economies and flagging political will to support public education. Yet we are not powerless to purposefully and strategically use what resources we do have to infuse our schools with the energy and optimism necessary to educate our kids. It takes creativity, and it takes courage.