A group of students at Columbus Alternative High School is calling for changes to their building, which they say is outdated and has major issues with heating and cooling, plumbing, pests and security.
This week, as the Columbus School Board held a meeting about the district’s facilities, students led tours around the school.
One of the guides is Brandon Simmons, who points out the entrance space of CAHS, which lacks a waiting room for visitors. Simmons and his fellow students consider that a safety concern.
Simmons is a junior at CAHS, with a halo of brown hair and an understanding of school funding law that would put a typical social studies class to shame. He’s part of the Civic Education and Leadership Academy, a program run through the local nonprofit WORTH Foundation.
The group wants a building inspection, a traffic impact report and, eventually, a student appointment to the Columbus City School Board. They’re hoping conversations with a cross-section of CAHS-related folks will help jump-start the process.
Simmons's tour group includes some students, the school’s principal, a representative from Columbus City Schools and the president of the PTA, Tracy Barzdukas. Her daughter is a freshman here.
“The building conditions were a concern when we were touring high schools. And it was a bit of a con of sending her here because it was falling apart," Barzdukas says. "And that says to me that the district isn’t invested in their education, because they won’t put the effort and resources into making it a good working environment."
She’s not the only parent that feels that way.
“As soon as I announced that I was becoming president," she says, "I have parents of alumni, of current students, of potential students, family, saying, ‘O.K., what about the building?'"
The issues include bathroom stalls without locks that are barely big enough to stand in, exposed pipes, outdated wiring, deteriorating doors and ceilings, and some unwelcome guests.
“Bats. We have a bat problem," Skyler Reid points out, walking down a hallway of student art. "Every year of my high school career I’ve had a bat flown over my head. Bat droppings are found, rodent droppings are found."
Reid says the school was originally built for elementary students, and it shows. The auditorium isn’t big enough to fit all 829 high school students at once. The gym just barely squeezes them in. The school doesn’t have air conditioning, and Simmons says temperature regulation is a problem.
While these issues aren’t new, a sump pump failure and subsequent fire in October pushed the students to action.
“Once the transformer fire happened, it really made us feel like we were not safe here in this building," Reid says. "We really just feel like if we have one fire, when is the next fire going to be? Will it be detected as soon? It was kinda the straw that broke the camel’s back."
A school-wide survey by the student group found nearly 75 percent of students felt anxious or uncomfortable because of the building. Even more said those conditions made it more difficult to learn.
Principal Darryl Sanders disagrees.
“No. No, I think it can make it challenging sometimes, but in terms of overall academic achievement, no. I think our students are resilient," he says. "And in spite of maybe the building being too warm or being too cold, they excel.”
The school district admits the building has problems. While the students were circling the school, the board held a meeting to discuss broader district facilities questions.
Spokesperson Scott Varner says the district and students are on the same page—CAHS needs a new building—so an independent inspection isn’t needed. He says some repairs are already scheduled, but adds that even once they gather the some $40 million for a new building, making it reality will take time.
“As much as four to five years, even once dollars are identified, given time to do the right planning and design and construction,” he says.
But Simmons isn’t letting them off the hook.
“The school board has punted this problem down the road. CAHS was not built 100 years old," he adds. "This problem has festered for quite some time.”
Simmons says not all students and parents agree whether the school should get a new building entirely, or renovate the one they have now. Instead, his group is focusing on the first step: getting an independent inspection of the building.
Until then, he and his classmates will keep learning in their classrooms—bats, drafts, warts and all.