In an atomized age when we all carry around our own personal supply of music and watch whatever shows we want whenever we want, the concept of “community” is fading.
Even in Indiana, where famously towns built high school gyms that could hold more than the entire community population (the biggest gym got to host the Sectional round of the state basketball tournament, see), we seem more like geographically-clumped groups of subdivisions rather than towns sometimes.
But when people vote with their feet, those towns that have a “sense of place” seem to stand out. We moved here 11 summers ago, knowing the reputation of the town, and in particular of the schools – no small thing for a family with two school-age boys. For a guy who considers himself more of a Chicagoan than a Hoosier, there was definitely some resistance to moving “out there”. When I was growing up, Valpo was so far away it had its own radio station. But the town has grown on me. It’s definitely been good to us.
I get “We Are Valpo”. I really do. It’s a real, live, community. Not just a place to park your car and lay your head inbetween work shifts.
The financial meltdown of 2008 devastated so many towns and families, many of which are still struggling to recover (even as it seems another economic downturn is just around the corner). It hit the schools a year or so later, after everything else in the budget had been cut to the bone, when the state of Indiana eliminated $300 million dollars in school funding. Most districts did what they needed to do to get by. Urban districts did what they have always done, which is to suck it up and get about the business of teaching kids. High-performing districts struggled for a way to keep funding their programs. Eventually, like a family facing a pay cut, districts needed to find a way to bring in more dollars. Only way that happens is to go to the community, make your case, and let the people vote.
Valparaiso Community Schools placed two referenda totaling almost $150 million on the ballot in Spring of 2015. It was an off-year, primary election, meaning ultra-low turnout. But of the folks who went to the polls, 66% voted to raise their own taxes to fund a major building project, teacher salaries, and programming.
Wow. As I told two assistant superintendents during the interview process, all school districts need more money. Not every community can step up, or is willing to step up, they way Valpo did. That tells me a lot about how this community values education, its families, its children, and its future.
Know what else? We owe them. Big time.
So on Friday, as part of the two-day New Teacher Orientation, we embarked on the Valparaiso World Tour.
Me and 50 of my closest friends piled into a Big Yellow School Bus (yeah, that kind). No AC, 90 degrees outside, butt sticking to the upholstered seats. Did I mention we all made new friends?”
So for four hours we made our way around the city, visiting every school (and some other points of interest), meeting principals and staff, receiving goodies.
Motto for the day: “Stress balls And Chocolate”.
The high school’s former longtime former football coach served as our tour guide. The man can still pump up a crowd, that is for sure.
Saw the construction Zone that will be my new classroom home:
Met a therapy dog at one elementary school, played Family Feud at the grade school alma mater of Jeff Samardzija, heard from folks for whom teaching here is the family business. Found out the Ivy Tech medical program has a $100,000 mannequin that sweats, has heart attacks, and gives birth. Stopped by the Boys And Girls Club. Met the Porter County historian, saw a Civil War-era opera hall, drove past a million great places to eat. All the while, we immersed ourselves in the The Community. We talked with people who have moved here, lived here, contributed here – with an inescapable message: You all are about to contribute here, too.
Count me in.
Of all the events of the day, my two biggest takeaways: The Porter County Career and Technical Center embarked on an alternative energy project a few years ago, with students in charge of the design, machining, installation and programming. That set-up generates 7.5 kw per hour, partially powering up the physical plant, and the surplus is sold back to NIPSCO. The profits help to fund the PCCTC programs.
At Parkview Elementary we learned the school was the recipient of a $400,000 grant under a new state law for a dual-language immersion program that has kindergarten students learning Spanish. For real. The principal hopes to be able to expand the program to another grade each year. That is kind of incredible. In addition, the students plant and maintain a school garden. Principal Anne Wodetzky boarded the bus with a basket overflowing with fresh veggies for us to take home.
Our instruction: Go make salsa.
As a long-time pico guy, I can tell you that is an apt metaphor for what we do. Every ingredient stands out on its own, but together they make something incredible. The basic ingredients are constant, but the chef gets to tweak things here and there, maybe making improvments on a classic.
This morning Mrs. Dull shared Ken Robinson’s TED talk from a few years ago. No coincidences, people. No coincidences. The money shot came at the 19:11 mark.
“We may not see this future, but they will. And our job is to help them make something of it.”
Or as Valpo superintendent Dr. Ric Frataccia told us before we boarded the bus: “In 20 years, your kids are going to be you. They’ll be in charge of everything. And you will have had a part in helping them become what they will be.”
I still have a mountain of set-up to do and meetings to attend before I see my first class of students on Wednesday. But I was ready to go at 3:00 Friday. I’m sold.
A unified body of individuals. The people with common interests living in a particular area. An interacting population of various kinds of individuals. A Community.
We Are Valpo.