By Folami Prescott-Adams
Jr. Academy Principal Greg Leaphart of Drew Charter School conducted a tour with a visiting charter school leader, 8 student teaching residents and myself.

We all ooh’d and ah’d at the rolling chairs and the hangout-steps (complete with electrical outlets – 2 per step) made out of the wood from the trees that were cut down to build the school. And solar panels that generate 30% of the electricity in the building. And a 1-to-1 for google chromes. (education speak for every student has their own computer. One computer for every one student.)

The theatre with awesome acoustics.

The gym with a running track. A 2nd practice gym.

A makers space with 3-d printers and a full wood shop.

Collaborative spaces for students with lockers, movable smartboards, more rolling chairs, screens and outlets everywhere.

And yet the most riveting thing we saw on the tour was an 8th-grade teacher digging in and challenging her students to articulate the difference between reciprocal and opposite. The students were learning about the reciprocal of an exponent. The teacher refused to give up when one student just could not easily articulate the meaning of opposite. Even with her own presentation of hot and cold as an example of a pair of opposites, she could not explain what that relationship was – conceptually. She used no smart board, computer or even white board.

Five of us sat in the back of the room literally star struck. One visitor was dying to chime in and fought the temptation (hate she felt she had to – but that’s another topic).

At the end of the tour, no one’s most compelling observation had anything to do with all of the building features that produced all those oohs and ahs earlier in the visit.

What struck us the most?

The commitment to collaboration, happy students and teachers and that teacher who invited her students to struggle as the ultimate way to learn a concept.

I have seen these things done very well in the raggedyest (a word?) building you could imagine.

I remember when my youngest son got to attend the NEW North Atlanta HS in the 11-story former IBM building – one of two high-story (relatively speaking in the world of K-12 schools) in the country, etc. etc. Turns out the students are not allowed to have lunch on the campus lake or any of the other awesome outdoor spaces on the campus.

When I asked my son what he thought of the school, he said. “Same school. New building. No. big. Deal.”

I was crushed yet impressed with his insight.

At the end of the day, if we renovate and build new school houses and don’t drastically change the way we teach, the way we use technology and the way some of us see students as passive vessels to fill with knowledge – not wisdom – we will fail to produce high-quality schools that prepare our children to be innovators, deep thinkers and disruptors.

Wi-fi everywhere is lovely.

Rolling chairs are nice.

Engaging teachers with deep content knowledge with a love for his/her students and a commitment to engage them in their own learning is even nicer.

Whether it happens in a one-room schoolhouse or a state-of-the-art building, it will produce the kind of solution-oriented & tenacious students who will grow up to make our community a better place to be.