How the Big Thing Blew Up

— English teachers at Bell Junior High School must have an easy time teaching irony to their composition students these days.Irony abounds at the Southeast San Diego school. For example, the campus and buildings, after six years' deferred maintenance, were cleaned up recently, but much of the faculty is unhappy about it. More irony: Maria Shriver, wife of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, was to pay a visit in late May to inspect the school's new fitness facility as part of her campaign against child obesity, but students were kept out of physical education classes -- sometimes watching movies with substitute teachers instead of exercising -- in the days leading up to her scheduled visit.

The visit from California's first lady -- originally scheduled for May 24 but canceled when Ms. Shriver took ill -- had its beginnings a year and a half earlier. "In December 2003," says Heidi Workman, chair of the physical education department at Bell, "one of our former coaches here at Bell, Kim Warner, wrote a grant proposal for the Chargers, because the Charger Foundation has grants that they give to the schools and the community for physical education and health. In spring of 2004 we went to a Chargers Champions Organization's gala downtown, and they presented us with a check for $25,000. But that fall, we got wind from the San Diego City Schools that the proposal that Kim wrote did not go through. There was some problem with the outdoor fitness area Kim had proposed that was too difficult to install."

Workman did not have to return the money. Instead, in January, "I rewrote the grant for fitness equipment, a new fitness room, and a new weight room. The grant was approved very quickly."

Grant money in hand, Workman and her staff of seven physical education coaches began transforming two adjacent rooms on the campus into an exercise center. "Me and my staff worked for the last six months putting everything together. We didn't contract any labor out because we spent all of the money on equipment.... We installed ten Schwinn stationary bikes, we have a rowing machine, and we have Dance Dance Revolution, which is a dancing game that is really hot in the arcades right now. We have exercise stability balls, we have two universal-type machines, and we have a plethora of jump ropes, punching bags, and kick bags. We worked on our breaks, after school, and on the weekends to paint, install floors, install equipment...."

In April, as the project neared completion, Workman says, "We invited the Chargers to come out and celebrate the grand opening of our fitness room on May 26. And apparently what then happened was that Maria Shriver was kicking off...a campaign to combat childhood obesity and to strengthen nutrition in the schools. As part of that effort, she called the Chargers organization and asked them if they knew of any schools that were involved with physical fitness. The Chargers said, 'Yeah, we are working with Bell Junior High.' And that is how the big thing blew up."

As the May 24 date of Shriver's visit approached, something happened at Bell that hadn't happened for a few years. "For the first time in, like, six years," says a Bell teacher who asked not to be identified (call her Teacher #1), "we have had these extra custodians, extra gardening staff, extra people going around painting, all these workmen coming, and I have no idea how much overtime everybody has accrued. The school definitely needed it, but we have needed it for six years, not just because this lady is coming for a half an hour. And to make it even more ironic is the fact that her husband is the very guy who wants to cut even more funding so education will be affected in a negative way even more, and she is going to go home and say, 'Oh, Arnold, the place looks great, the school system is fine,' and it has looked terrible for years. I mean, they have been scraping paint, people we haven't seen for years, coming out to this school."

Teacher #1 wasn't the only member of the Bell faculty bemused by the sudden concern for the school's appearance. "It's extremely disingenuous," says another, Teacher #2, adding that after years of telling the school there wasn't money for maintenance, "suddenly the district has come up with this money to beautify our campus with three weeks left in the school year. And we have seen just a multitude of painters and gardeners -- everything that you can imagine, run through here for ten hours after they found out that Maria Shriver was coming. And I know that they have had the vast majority of our custodial crew, plus the extra painters and maintenance guys here, working all weekend long on overtime rates. I know from talking to them; many of them were on heavy overtime to get this project done in time for her [May 24] visit, which never transpired."

Teacher #2 adds, "If these funds were available, the students could have certainly used them eight months ago when school opened for the year. It really seems that it is more for appearances than it is for the students. And that is really the bottom-line irritation that those of us who have been around a while feel: that a lot of lip service is paid to the needs of the students but that is not what we see in reality."

Both teachers insisted on anonymity for fear of retribution by the school administration in the form of class scheduling. "They can give you really rotten classes," says Teacher #1, "really horrible. It's well known that scheduling is the way they punish you."

Feelings among the faculty about the sudden, expensive facelift for the campus ran strong enough that teachers planned a silent protest for the visit. "Everybody was going to wear black that day," says Teacher #1. "We wanted to wear all black but [Workman] was so upset, and we all like her a lot, so we thought, We'll compromise and just wear a black shirt."

Bell's principal, Stacy Spector, says it's not a matter of funds being suddenly available. "We are on the district's landscape schedule, and we are on their maintenance schedule for facility upgrades for repainting, stucco repair, etc. In this situation, we were able to work with the district to sort of move some of that forward; it was going to be done anyways, but we were able to reconfigure the calendar so that it [could] be done now."

Another issue of concern to Bell teachers is that students were prevented from using the new fitness rooms and outdoor physical education areas for a few days leading up to Shriver's visit because the school administration wanted to keep them clean. "That is partially true," Workman says. "Each individual coach had classrooms to go to, and they did work there. I don't think they did physical activity; they could have done some nutritional things. I can't speak for all the coaches."

Kids were kept out of physical education for four or five days, Workman says, adding that the motivation was not to keep students from sullying the facility. "Absolutely not," she says. "The room was still under construction, and we just didn't want the kids in and around the construction site. There were workers everywhere. It wouldn't have been safe to have kids in there. That is why we gave them an alternative room to do their thing."

Asked if she feels the school district was putting on a false face for Shriver, Workman answers, "Yes, I do, but I would be embarrassed otherwise. And I think the best thing to do is to tell her, 'We did all this because you came; this is not the way it was.' I guess just to vocalize that with her when she comes."

"The other thing about all this is the kids are not fooled," adds Teacher #2. "When [the cleanup] began, our students were sitting here in class, and they were asking, 'Who is the school getting fixed up for?' And that is an awkward position to be put in: to have to tactfully, without politicizing it, explain to them that a dignitary is coming, and suddenly the funds are available. But they are not stupid. They see through this as well as anyone else."

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