"Hey MB! If you're not busy this morning you should come out here. We're working at a school that I think you would love. It's built like an old stone castle, covered in ivy ."
It was the third time this summer my friend and fellow teacher, Fran Brewka, had invited me to come out and take pictures of the buildings where he and his crew of about a dozen Max Hayes High School students were working. I was busy the first two times he called, but since I had no plans that Thursday morning, I grabbed my camera and headed out to East 40th and Quincy.
Like an ancient fortress rising above the vinyl clad residences of the revitalized Central neighborhood, the old Central High School (renamed Carl Lewis Stokes) stands, a looming stone monument to Franklin Roosevelt's Federal Works Program. While the students continued to clear the tangled masses of vegetation threatening to devour the structure, Fran offered a tour.
"Wow! Look at the craftsmanship... the architectural detail, the granite, the marble, the brass."
I reached out to run my fingers along the polished stone panels covering the lobby walls.
"Can you imagine what a building like this would cost these days? And yet, when this was built, the country was in the midst of the Great Depression." How ironic, I mused, it seems that as the nation's economy improved, the quality of our construction deteriorated.
"C'mon upstairs to the tower, you can get some pretty cool shots from up there."
The windows were so scratched and dirty I could barely see through the ivy. An open widow in the next room provided entry for the aggressive vines, a stunning view of Cleveland's skyline, and a great shot of a group of students gathering up debris.
This is the second season for the summer maintenance program, which has tripled in size since the district agreed to hire the first crew of Max Hayes students last year.
Three teams, headed by three different teachers, meet early each morning at the high school where busses take them to the various job sites at school buildings across the district. No one is late.
Each team has their particular specialties, depending in large part on the instructor's expertise. They repair floors, paint, lay tile, landscape... the list goes on and on. With more than eighty school buildings operating in the Cleveland Municipal School District, there is work enough for a score of crews.
The speed, care, and professionalism of the students have garnered compliments from head custodians across the district, CMSD administrators, the community, and even Mayor Frank Jackson.
At one site, the major difference between the professionally laid tile and the work done by the Max Hays students was the obvious superiority of the student work. When the building custodian marveled at the quality of the student's craftsmenship, the kids learned one of life's most valuable lessons; pride in a job well done.
Even people in the community are beginning to notice.
At one over-grown East-side school, passers-by commented that they had assumed the school was closed down until the Max Hayes crew came out to clear away the jungle of weeds and debris.
Fran chuckled as he related a story about the folks in one West-side neighborhood who wandered over to watch the activity, while the students began cleaning up the long neglected landscape of an elementary school. Apparently, inspired by all the hard-working teen-agers, or not wanting their homes to look shabby by comparison, when the neighbors returned to their respective garages, out came the lawn mowers, rakes, and hedge cutters!
Education, when extended beyond the walls of the classroom, becomes a far richer, truly valuable experience.
Max Hayes building construction teacher Jim Mulgrew has watched students who stagnated in their academic classes find their spark working in the shop. Mathematics, reading, and problem solving take on a new relevancy when applied on a job site. Jim began the Max Hayes summer work program last year as a natural extension to the learning that was happening each day in his department.
The many benefits of the program are obvious. The district gets much needed maintenance at bargain basement prices. Students get valuable job training, real work experience for their resumes, and a paycheck. They also gain some of the more subtle life lessons of pride and self-esteem, building new friendships, and teamwork.
When schools give their teachers the opportunity to innovate, wonderful things will happen.