Sunday, February 2, 2014

You didn't build that, or did you?

It's no secret that I'm in the market for a better job and have been for some time. Anyone who knows me personally knows that it's been a very long and frustrating process, full of what seem like endless job applications, resumes sent out, and little, if any response despite the experience I bring and my education. As this has dragged on, I've thought a lot about how people "make it" and are successful, plus I see a lot of "inspirational" posts from various people I either know or follow on my various social media accounts. And this is dealing with success in some type of occupation or career, not for something like losing weight, working out, forming new habits, etc.

First off, though, what is the definition of "successful"? I think when most people say "successful" they are talking in terms of finances. In other words, a successful person is someone who has a well-paying job or is otherwise well-off financially. At the very least they are financially independent. While I don't disagree with that definition, I am reminded of the quote from LDS President David O. McKay: "No outside success can compensate for failure in the home." In other words, while being financially well-off is certainly a worthwhile goal, if by doing so we sacrifice meaningful relationships (especially our own family) and/or compromise our morals and values to attain it, can we truly be "successful"? That in itself could probably take its own blog post. Suffice it to say, I would have a hard time considering myself successful even with all the money in the world if I didn't have my family. 

Moving on, the most common themes on these "inspirational" posts I see on social media are hard work, diligence, and perseverance, related, of course, to setting goals. While I certainly don't discount the importance of those things, do they in themselves make someone successful? No, they don't. Yeah, you heard me right. I know plenty of people who, like myself, have done everything they are supposed to do yet struggle to gain any type of recognition for their talents and abilities. It has little to do with a lack of hard work, diligence, or perseverance. Now, these inspirational stories or pictures will often make it sound like the person who posted them is successful because of those very things (i.e. their own efforts only), yet when you read their stories, something else comes up: someone else gave them a chance, i.e. simply noticed them. In other words, part of their success was being in the right place at the right time. 

Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait. So you mean their success can be attributed to someone else? Yep, at least partially. Again, the hard work, diligence, and perseverance certainly put them in a position to be successful and to sustain their success, but by themselves did not make that person successful. You can be the best teacher in the world, but if no district ever looks past what they see on your resume or even bothers to read it or give you an interview, guess what? You're still on the outside looking in. Even for entrepreneurs, you can have the best idea ever, but unless other people buy it and tell others, you're no better off than before. You cannot attain success alone, at least in terms of a career. 

I've seen that in my own life, aside from the job search. As many know, I love to sing the National Anthem for sporting events and have been doing so for almost 20 years now. People frequently ask how I get those gigs, especially when I sing for professional sports teams like the Cleveland Indians and Lake Erie Monsters. The answer is simple: for most teams I initially sent them a CD with a recording of me singing. Over the years I've had recordings done of performances at various venues that I put those on YouTube, so now I simply send teams a resume of my performance experience and the web address for my YouTube page. Last year I created a National Anthem page to refer people to, which includes all of those things: my performance experience, audio recordings, and video recordings. 

But you know what? Sending all that out only goes as far as the people who receive it. While I have been fortunate to sing for the Indians and several other minor league teams, it's because the person in charge at each place has liked what they heard and contacted me to song. For reasons I don't know, I have yet to sing for the Cleveland Cavaliers and a host of other major league teams I send stuff to every year. For instance, I recently sent materials to another Major League Baseball team and received a reply that in order to even be considered for the anthem, I have to join one a group that is connected with group ticket sales and then go through that group's contact with the team. For someone like me not based in that area (but frequently there for family and only 5 hours away), it makes it somewhat difficult to commit to something like that. It's certainly not based at all on my talents, abilities, and experience with the anthem.

So yes, I have set myself up to be successful in that regard, but unless someone says "hey, we want you to sing for us", I'm really no further along than I was before I sent it out. I consider what I'm doing as creating opportunities for myself; putting myself in the position to receive them, but in the end, whether I perform or not isn't in my power. I do much the same with Kent State: I noticed they often didn't have a singer for the anthem, so I got in touch with the person in charge, and boom. When a new person comes in (which happens every few years), I have to start all over again. But again, it's a two-way street. It's not JUST because of me, it's because the person in charge considers me someone they like to have sing for them. 

When President Obama made his comments about "you didn't build that", I think this is the idea he was getting at, even though I wasn't all that impressed with how he worded it nor the seeming emphasis he placed on others in our various paths to success. Yes, we do need to do a lot on our own to be successful. Like I said, hard work, setting goals, persevering, all those things, are key steps in helping us be successful and even more so for sustaining success. But yes, at some point, you do need someone else, whether they be an employer, an agent, or even a customer, (or for me and singing the anthem, usually an intern!) to help you go beyond potential to reality and success. I think it's very disingenuous for people who are successful to ignore the roles that others (including, for those of us who are religious, God) have played in their success and just focus on what the individual has done. That's not to underscore what the individual has done or undermine it in any way, but to be realistic. Again, ask any "successful" person how they achieved success, and at some point along the way, there will be an event where someone else took notice and decided to take a chance on them.

Let's keep it real. Who knows, maybe you hold the key to helping others achieve success too?

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Why Franklin?

On Thursday, news broke that the Kent City School District plans to close one of its five elementary schools at the end of the current school year because of enrollment declines. While no specific school has been officially announced, the article indicated that some people believe it will be Franklin Elementary School. I also believe Franklin will be the one closed and am not surprised for a number of reasons. An article on Friday, January 31st, however, made it sound as if Franklin (and the former Central Elementary School) closing is a done deal, even while board members insist no formal decision has been made.

Let me start out by saying this blog should not be construed as an endorsement of closing any of the schools or advocating for one school or the other to close. I'm simply looking at the "why"s and answering them to help people understand the situation better and move beyond the simple emotional aspect of the situation. If people really want to potentially stop this closure, saying things like "Franklin is the best!" and "I love Franklin!!" may sound nice, but they aren't going to sway any votes. We all need to understand the facts, so we can argue facts with facts, particularly the economics of the situation. While I did not attend Franklin as a student, I have worked there multiple times as a substitute over 3 years (so am familiar with the students and faculty), plus I know how upsetting it would be to me to have one of my schools close, especially if I were still a student there. That said, from an enrollment standpoint, which seems to be the main driver here, the district is completely justified in closing an elementary school. Kent simply does not have enough elementary-aged students to warrant spending money on five buildings when we have the student body that could fit in four, even three.

My concern as an alumnus of the district and now as a resident is how this has come about. Even in being, what I consider, justified in terms of enrollment (Kent does not need five elementary schools with the current enrollment), I feel the way the news has broken and the seeming disagreement in statements about whether or not it's Franklin, looks really bad and reflects poorly on the Board of Education. Voters in Kent just passed another school levy this past May that is due to generate $4.25 million in additional funds. Yes, that money has not yet come to the district, but it is coming, on top of the local tax money the district already receives. Kent has the highest property tax rates in the county and is among the highest in the area. Levies are hardly ever (if ever) voted down here. The schools are supported very well by residents and have been for pretty much ever. Announcing cuts, no matter how legitimate the reasons, so soon after a levy approval like that just does not look good.  I hope it spurs more residents, whether they have kids in the schools or not, to be more involved and to really analyze how the district does business rather than simply assuming the best and basically writing blank checks all the time. Kent does a lot of things very well, but it could definitely use improvement in other areas.


Why the decline in elementary students? The district speculates the rise in rental housing, which is heavily related to the growth of Kent State University. The population of the city of Kent is higher than it has ever been in its history and is growing (along with Franklin Township), yet the school district has been declining. While I think the conversion of family housing to rentals is part of that, it's not the entire reason. I believe Kent has a lot of empty-nesters who have remained here. Nothing wrong with that (generally means they like it here and see no reason to leave), but it's going to have the obvious effect of lowering the student body. The neighborhood my Ridinger grandparents live in just east of KSU is a prime example. My dad remembers the neighborhood being full of kids, but now, and for the last 10-20 years, it has far more senior citizens and retired couples than it does kids as the kids have grown up and moved on. My grandparents themselves are part of that. Add that to the fact that Kent has had very little construction in the way of family housing (i.e. housing developments), and there you go. The neighborhood I grew up in also had that to a degree, and I've seen that here in the neighborhood I live in now in Kent.

Another valid point that I've seen others raise is the issue of taxes. While there hasn't been a whole lot of new housing available for families in Kent, I know of at least a few who have either decided they can't afford to live here because of the property taxes, or nearly didn't buy their house in Kent because of the high property taxes. In other words, in our desire to fund our schools well, we may be pricing out many of the very people the great programs the schools offer are designed to help the most. Of course, there hasn't been a formal study by the city or district (all anecdotal observations) as to exactly why and there are likely other factors too, but in the end, the result is we have far less elementary-aged students now than we did 10 and 20 years ago and the numbers have been declining for some time. Each elementary school outside Davey (which houses all preschoolers, so has a larger enrollment), has about 200 students. Franklin itself only has 192 this year. I'm not sure the capacities of each elementary school, but my guess is they are optimal around 350 student each (in the early 1990s, Walls had as many as 495 one year), give or take a few. Davey is the exception since it is a former high school and middle school, so it obviously has a larger capacity, probably around 600. As a junior high it had around 800 students, though it was crowded.


September 7, 1922 Kent Tribune announcing the opening of Franklin
OK, so why has Franklin been targeted to close? Simple economics. From a facilities standpoint, Franklin is old and the older a building gets, the more expensive it becomes to maintain. The original portion of the building opened September 11, 1922, just 5 days after the original portion of Davey Elementary School opened as Roosevelt High School. Franklin has two additions, one on either side of the original building. As far as I have been able to find, both additions were built at the same time and were built in the 1950s prior to the merger between the Kent City and Franklin Local School Districts in 1959. There have been no major renovations to the building in the last few decades that I am aware of.

While Davey is an older building (at least the original also has an addition that opened in 1967), it was heavily renovated in 1999-2000 as part of its conversion from a middle school to an elementary school, so much of it is newer than any other Kent school building, even Stanton Middle School (opened August 1999). That's on top of the historical and sentimental values attached to that building, which has served as a high school and middle school before being an elementary school. The other three Kent elementary schools are as follows, from oldest to youngest:
1. Longcoy, opened 1957 with additions in 1965 and the mid 1980s
2. Holden, opened in 1965
3. Walls, opened in 1966 with an addition in the early 1970s

This is not to say that Franklin is being targeted simply because it's old or that it's in terrible shape, because it isn't. But compared to the other elementary schools in the district, it is in the worst shape and is likely more expensive to maintain.


Anyone who has even been in Franklin knows its other shortcoming as a facility: accessibility. The entire building, both the original and the additions, was built long before any kind of handicap accessibility standards were in place. While there are three listed floors, in reality there are four levels connected only by staircases, most of which are small and narrow. The building has a somewhat confusing layout too because of the topography of the site. For instance, when you enter to go into the office or the gym, you are on what is considered the second floor even though it is ground level. Just outside the office is a staircase going to the rest of the second floor. The first floor is really the basement (accessible from the "upper" part of the second floor) and then there is a third level. The other four elementary buildings are either one floor (Longcoy has some stairs in the back of the building to a higher part of the same floor, but the rest of the building largely accessible) or have elevators (Davey has an elevator added during its renovation).

So yes, from a facilities and accessibility standpoint, eliminating Franklin makes financial sense since keeping it would result in extensive renovation to bring it up to code or total replacement. In a recent community survey, the district indicated that Franklin needed heavy renovation or replacement, and some in the district suggested simply closing Franklin instead. If enrollment would increase over the years and a new building needed, a new building would have to be built anyway. This will put it off until needed, if ever.


Another thing working against Franklin is its location. Franklin is located on SR 43 just north of Roosevelt High School. It is the only Kent elementary school on a major road and is the only one not in the middle of a residential neighborhood, which is due to its history as the centralized township school. Yes, it's not completely isolated from residential areas (northern Kent, with the Riverbend subdivision adjacent to it), but compared to the other schools, it's far more isolated. Neighborhood elementary schools are best in residential areas on side streets since they have very young children walking to school and crossing streets. On top of that, the territory that Franklin serves is the largest in terms of land size, so it wouldn't surprise me if Franklin has the largest percentage of students who are bused or otherwise driven to school (a lot of parents drive their kids to school I noticed). That's significant because in closing a school, all costs are weighed. If closing one school means busing a whole bunch of kids who weren't previously bused, it may end up not creating the savings the district was hoping for. Since most Franklin kids are already bused, it would result in minimal increases in transportation costs. Even the kids that do currently walk could be picked up on by the existing routes on their way to whichever school they are going to.

Holden Elementary School, located on West School Street
The only other elementary school with a location similar to Franklin is Holden, but Holden is in a much more densely populated area (a smaller territory), so a large number, if not the majority, of the students walk to school. In fact, all of Holden's territory is less than a mile from the school as the crow flies. It is also not directly on a major road, though it is just a few hundred feet from South Water Street (SR 43). If Holden was closed, the entire student body would have to be bused to Walls, Davey, and/or Longcoy, a student body that previously wasn't bused. Bear in mind too that Holden is the closest school to the Kent City Schools' bus garage. And, of course, the building is newer than Franklin and is one floor.

The other thing with Holden is that it's much more embedded as a part of its neighborhood than Franklin is, at least from my experience at both schools and what I know about each school's history. Holden is the school for what is known as the South End (or the South Side), an area that has some of the highest poverty rates in the city, but is also a fairly close-knit, racially diverse, blue collar neighborhood. Holden is the successor of South School, which dates back to a wooden frame building in 1869 and a later building that stood from 1880-1966. It was the first "neighborhood" elementary school in Kent, formed later in the year that Kent's first centralized school (the Union School) opened. While Franklin dates to 1922 as a consolidation of the township's school houses, it did not become a Kent elementary school until 1959, and since at least 1966 has not served the entire township. That's not to say it isn't a community in itself, but of all the schools in Kent, Holden has always been the one that seemed to have the deepest ties to its neighborhood.

End results

If Franklin does end up getting closed, I see the student body getting divided between Walls and Davey most likely, then possibly other adjustments in the boundaries with Longcoy and Holden to balance the buildings out a bit. Walls already has a large section of Franklin Township in its territory (I grew up in the township and went to Walls). If needed, the district could also open up space at Davey by moving some of the preschool classes to other elementary schools instead of having all of them together. In reality, Walls could absorb the entire enrollment of Franklin and still have less students than when I was in school there. During my 5th grade year, Walls had 495 students in grades K-5. We had so many students that some had to be moved to Franklin my 5th grade year, plus we did not have a music or an art room. If Walls and Franklin were combined today, it would create a school of not even 400 students. When I subbed at Walls last in 2012, there were several classrooms that weren't being used at all (yet the school still has a modular unit out back!). Now, I don't think the district will actually do that; it's more to illustrate that having five schools isn't really needed. I can, however, see a scenario where the majority of Franklin students end up at Walls while others end up at Davey. I would hope the district goes the route that provides minimal disruption. If the boundaries are changed for all the remaining schools, that's going to be a lot of disruption for more than just the Franklin kids.

The former Emma Williard School at the corner of Brady Lake and Lake
Rockwell Roads near Brady Lake. It closed in 1978 and has been largely
vacant since then. Several projects have been proposed, but none have
come to fruition. 
I don't see large-scale layoffs. Most of the faculty and staff will likely relocate to the new schools with the kids. It won't simply be a case of adding all the students coming from Franklin to existing classrooms without additional teachers. Those who retire likely won't get replaced, though. I could see the loss of some administrative jobs (like the principal of Franklin), but that will depend on any retirements or departures that may come up at the other schools or in other districts. I do think the district will do what it can to minimize layoffs, if they happen at all, and there is enough time for people to be looking for other work if they think they may get laid off.

From a historical standpoint, I also hope that the Franklin building can find a use beyond a school. It is over 90 years old and is part of the community's history, so I would hate to see it torn down. Even so, finding new purposes for schools can often be difficult for a number of reasons. The former Emma Williard Elementary School in the Brady Lake area, closed in 1978, still stands and has been vacant since its closure. The issue is simply the cost of converting it to other uses. Schools can be converted to other uses, but they need someone who has a lot of money and a love of history. We've seen some former elementary schools find new life, others abandoned, and others torn down. There are so many factors.