During the past spring break, my wife, son, and I traveled to West Texas to hike in Big Bend and the Davis Mountains. We spent some time in Alpine, a wonderful small town where the residents have bumper stickers that read "Austin may be weird, but Alpine is far out." One of the main attractions in Alpine is Kokernot Field, a baseball stadium built in 1947 for the then-outrageous cost of $1.25 million. Texas Monthly has called it "the Yankee Stadium of Texas"; and Sports Illustrated, "the best little ballpark in Texas (or anywhere else)." Rancher Herbert Lee Kokernot, Jr. was so determined to build the most impressive park that he used to check the number of light bulbs at other parks to make sure his had the most. There remain some beautiful touches in the wrought iron and outfield fences. The ranch's brand is everywhere, often quite intricately.
To be sure, it was a build-it-and-they-will-come endeavor. For a while it worked. One time in the 1950s 6000 people showed up for a game, and several current and future professionals played there. But after the last semi-pro game of 1961, the park was used on and off by Sul Ross State University, whose program went dormant for a long stretch, and the local school district. 2009 marked the first pro game played there in 48 years. The park is now the home of the Alpine Cowboys of the Pecos League, which compresses 70 games into a 72-day season, for which players earn $50 per week. I also was totally underwhelmed by the park. Perhaps I expected too much. But the main thing I noticed was how run-down the entire place seemed. I wondered if it were used at all anymore or if it were regularly maintained. That said, I could see what a jewel it must have been in its heyday. You can also imagine what Kokernot's hopes and dreams and vision were. Perhaps he had a strategic plan...
I say that somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as I'm unclear when strategic planning--with a final, elaborate document--became in vogue. But I'm quite serious when I say I found myself thinking of many school's strategic plans and how they often become focused on building ever-grander facilities. On some level this makes sense. Impressive facilities do attract families. They give boards and donors a sense of accomplishment. They can galvanize a community. They can provide direction and even inspire. It's certainly fun to dream and engage in master campus planning projects.
However, I wonder how much truly strategic thought goes into these plans and the emphasis on building projects. In other words, do we consider what should be happening in those building? I sense that it does--but in somewhat misguided fashion. As symbolized by the buildings themselves metaphorically, it's a matter of bigger, faster, stronger...but not necessarily different. The plans seldom reveal truly dramatic or meaningful curricular or pedagogical change. Plus millions of dollars are invested into buildings based largely on current realities, despite the rapidity of change in the larger culture and cries for schools to become more nimble and innovative. To put the issue more starkly: we're creating plans intended to look out x number of years along with constructing magnificent buildings that should last decades at a time when a fairly-recently unimagined future races towards us faster and faster. Meanwhile our costs keep rising.
I'm not saying that schools shouldn't have great facilities. They should be places which symbolize our values and stir our imaginations, sparking amazing work. I'm urging that we be more thoughtful in what that work should be. That raises a certain irony. Most schools acknowledge that we should be doing more to help kids become more innovative and creative (actually, I should say remain--or at least not beat it out of them). Towards that end, many have begun incorporating bits of design thinking into their programs. One of the main features of that mindset is how constraints can lead to more creative thinking. Yet we construct facilities which remove as many restraints as possible.
To me that's not good building strategy. I fear that if we don't have much deeper conversations about what happens in those buildings, many of our schools may end up like Kokernot Field.