Joyce Terhaar

From the Executive Editor: A community solution on cold classrooms

Joyce Terhaar
Joyce Terhaar

Tracking down discarded sweatshirts was a regular chore when my youngest son was in first grade. He’d get hot playing at recess and the classrooms were nice and warm. Off would come the sweatshirt and he’d forget about it.

That’s not a problem right now for parents of children in some classrooms in the Twin Rivers Unified School District. The Bee’s Diana Lambert reported last week that many classrooms lack heat and air conditioning. Pictures of thermostats mailed to union officials from teachers have shown temperatures ranging from 44 to 91 degrees, depending on the season. Even in this mild winter weather, classrooms are cold enough that some teachers are making do with space heaters while students are using blankets and sleeping bags to stay warm.

I don’t usually opine in this column about local issues in the news given my newsroom role and need for objectivity. I stick to journalism issues and explain what’s going on at The Bee. But I think it’s likely we all can agree we shouldn’t be sending children to school in unheated or overly hot classrooms. There’s the obvious issue that an uncomfortable environment distracts from the goal to learn. And then there’s basic human decency. It’s just not right.

So what, then, to do about it? This hasn’t been – and won’t be – fixed by district leadership alone. It takes a community of families and teachers and administrators and concerned citizens. And it starts with a complete understanding of the problem. What we know in the Twin Rivers district is that aging facilities and even copper theft (it damaged a heating system) have proved a difficult challenge for officials struggling to keep up with repairs.

Last week The Bee invited thousands of teachers in the region to participate in a “crowdsourcing” experiment to collect more information. Today I’m extending that to everyone who has a child in school or is otherwise involved with a school. We’ve created a place at to track and map classroom temperatures. If you are willing to participate and able to check the room’s thermostat or a thermometer, simply fill out this very short form asking for the school name, classroom, temperature, etc. We will keep confidential the names of those who participate; we don’t want anyone to get on the bad side of bosses or others because they participated.

Crowdsourcing is essentially how websites such as Yelp or Rotten Tomatoes work, by compiling information from the general public in a way that helps you decide where to eat or what movie to see.

Those sites, though, are opinion-based, and we’re asking for facts. So how to ensure these reports are accurate and not hijacked by someone with a special interest? In Twin Rivers, for instance, the level of discord and polarization is commonly known. Other districts have their own disagreements. Unions can have political agendas. District officials don’t want to look bad, especially if they’re elected and facing competitive races.

Crowdsourcing works best if enough people participate to tune out those who try to game the system. If four people say it’s 65 degrees in a classroom and one reports the temperature as 45 degrees, the weight of the group will negate the wrong information. In addition, we plan to spot-check information as necessary and ask school officials for feedback.

“We recognize the possible pitfalls here,” said Managing Editor Scott Lebar. “But we also know most readers want it right and will let us know whether someone is trying to twist the results. Our experience with our readers? They take what we do seriously, especially about serious subjects. Making sure their kids are warm, that falls into that category.”

Full public participation could give all of us a deep font of information, a map of the region filled with self-reported classroom temperatures. It would be a unique database pointing to problems that need to be addressed. It also would show where schools are doing things right.

It’s already clear that many parents are concerned enough to get involved. Grant Union High School parent Sascha Vogt brought a petition of 800 signatures to a December Twin Rivers school board meeting because parents heard of district plans to spend resources celebrating Superintendent Steven Martinez’s tenure even as their children remain chilled in district classrooms.

I’d encourage those parents and others to take the time to report temperatures to Sacbee. It could be a helpful step toward a community solution.

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