Debate Magazine

Legacy Institutions, and Why the Bureaucracy Always Comes First, and the Students Come Second

By Stevemiranda

I visitor came to PSCS today and used a phrase I’d never heard: “legacy institution.”

He said, “You get these legacy institutions that are designed to first serve the bureaucracy, the administrating of the program. The kids come second.”

He was referring to big box traditional schools that serve thousands of kids. He continued, “We need to create schools that handle students’ needs first.”

I knew exactly what he was talking about: I spent 10 years teaching in a big box traditional school before coming to PSCS.

Here’s a story that illustrates the point: I taught a philosophy class for seniors that consisted almost entirely of discussions about the reading I had assigned for homework. I made a request to the schedule maker: please do not assign this class to first period. It’s really hard for kids to have conversations about abstract ideas at 7:40 a.m. Any other period is fine. Please do not assign this class to first period.

Of course, it was assigned to first period. When I complained, the response came back, “That was the only slot where we could make it work with the overall master schedule.”

I have no doubt that was true. And, I have no doubt that the individuals involved did their very best to accommodate my request. But that didn’t change the fact that the bureaucracy came first, and the students came second.

Here’s another one (there are hundreds of examples of this that I could cite, but these are the first two that came to mind): a senior received her schedule of classes in the mail, only to learn that she hadn’t been enrolled in one specific class that was required to graduate. Incredulous, she visiting the counseling office only to find out that there were no more spots available in any sections of that class; to add her to the attendance list would put the teacher over the maximum number students allowed in the class, which would violate union rules.

It took many hours of standing in line, sitting in waiting rooms, phone calls from parents, and endless meetings, but she ended up getting into the class she needed. But the point remains: the bureaucracy came first, and the student came second.

This may seem like business as usual, that it’s completely common for things like that happen when you’ve 1600 students packed into one building. Get used to it. And that’s what we’ve done, we’ve gotten used to it. This is what we have come to expect from big box schools, our “legacy institutions.”

My point is that we don’t have to merely get used to it. At PSCS, we use a unique scheduling process where the only classes that get added to the master schedule are ones that have been prioritized by students. If there’s a conflict—say, one student wants Algebra II to be in third slot on Tuesdays but another wants it to be in second slot—the students are empowered to work it out and then report back to the teacher who’s putting all the pieces together. It’s a collaborative process. The students come first, and any bureaucracy that’s needed to run the administration must serve the students first.

It’s such a simple concept.

* * *

I looked up “legacy” in the dictionary, just for kicks. Here’s what I found: anything handed down from the past, as from an ancestor or predecessor.

We’ve been handed legacy institutions from our ancestors from the factory economy, in which the individual was subordinate to the machine. We now live in a creative economy, which requires new kinds of institutions. The only thing stopping us from changing them is our collective belief that this is normal, that it’s acceptable for things to be this way.

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