More schools turning to lockerless lifestyle; Educators extol combination of order, fewer security worries

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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But where do they hang their Britney Spears posters? The photos torn out of Tiger Beat and YM? The loving mash note never sent to Johnny in Miss Thompson’s homeroom?

At Birdville High School, students have somehow learned to live without what for generations has been a bedrock of the teenage experience: the school locker. And really, they don’t mind.

“I don’t miss it a bit,” said junior Chelsea Seaton, who had a locker at her last school. “It’s less of a hassle without one.”

Birdville High is a poster child for a movement to eliminate lockers from junior highs and high schools in Texas. Locker opponents say they’re a threat to safety, encourage immature behavior and give too many excuses to students looking to slack off.

“When the lockers came out, everything was quieter, cleaner, in its place,” said James Bartosh, superintendent of Granger schools and the state’s leading evangelist for the lockerless school. “Kids became more organized. They learned how to carry what they needed and not what they didn’t. It was a wholesale change.”

Mr. Bartosh was principal of Granger High School, about 45 miles northeast of Austin, four years ago when he first heard about the concept. He took some inspiration from the old industrial psychology principle of the Hawthorne effect: “If you want to dramatically improve the production of your employees, you have to drastically change their environment.”

As soon as the lockers were pulled out, test scores boomed. The school went from barely avoiding low-performing status to being recognized.

Couldn’t the improvements have come from other factors, such as an improved curriculum or better teacher training?

“The only thing we changed was getting rid of lockers,” he said. “We kept doing everything else the same way we’d done it before. It was this one change.”

Maintenance issue

Why are some principals opposed to lockers?

“Maintaining them takes an enormous effort,” said Jim Chadwell, principal at Northwest High School, which is eliminating its lockers this summer as part of a campus renovation. “You want an image of a clean, safe, orderly facility, and a key being dragged across 25 lockers can make that hard.”

“They’re not going to have lockers when they go off to college, so they might as well learn how to be organized and responsible now,” said Dr. Debbie Tribble, who has been principal at Birdville High since it opened three years ago.

Students at Birdville learn to strip down their belongings so they can all comfortably fit in a light backpack. “I love these kids, but they can be so, so messy,” Dr. Tribble said.

Students waste time lounging around their lockers between classes, which can spawn discipline problems, particularly on already crowded campuses.

“We had many more fights when we had lockers,” said Jim Yakubovsky, principal of DeSoto High School’s freshman campus, which is in its second year without lockers. “Now they just go straight to class.”

In DeSoto, the freshman campus goes an extra step and bans backpacks as well. Students are supposed to carry around nothing more than an organizer.

“Kids are so used to carrying things around that it’s like Linus and his security blanket,” Mr. Yakubovsky said. “If they have a winter coat, they take it with them to class instead of putting it in their locker. If they bring their lunch to school, we have an icebox to put it in in the morning.”

There are safety issues in both the no-lockers and no-backpacks movements. Post-Columbine, schools are vigilant about eliminating any possible hiding places for guns, knives, drugs or other contraband. In places that have adopted either measure, kids learn to carry less stuff.

Schools without lockers aren’t new. In some parts of the country, such as California, lockerless schools are the standard, often because classrooms are designed to open to the outdoors, not locker-lined hallways.

Lockers have traditionally been a part of Texas schools. The Texas Education Agency doesn’t keep track of how many schools make do without lockers, but Mr. Bartosh said there are about 60 junior high and high schools without them. Nearly all of those have gone lockerless in the last two or three years, he said.

The biggest adjustment for a school making the switch comes in textbooks. With some texts weighing in at several pounds and more than 1,000 pages, it might be considered cruel and unusual punishment to require students to drag seven or eight books around in a backpack all day.

“Carrying a 40-pound backpack was fine when I was in the Army, but freshman girls shouldn’t have to do it, too,” Mr. Yakubovsky said.

So lockerless schools usually give students two sets of books. One set goes home at the beginning of the school year and stays there until school is out. The other set is kept in the student’s classroom.

That way, students never have to carry textbooks, and their backpacks become minimalist depositories for a few binders and some loose-leaf paper.

Of course, some students still insist on lugging around the kitchen sink, or at least the “Band-Aids, spray perfume, makeup, paper, mint gum” and more you’d find in the backpack of Birdville freshman Kristin Weed.

Principals said that students typically resist the change.

“My daughter was going into ninth grade, and she said, ‘Man, you’re killing me,'” Mr. Bartosh said. But he said they come around. The dual-textbook strategy has academic benefits, principals say. It eliminates many of the most common excuses for student slacking, such as,”I forgot my book at school, so I couldn’t do my homework.”

“The first year we got rid of lockers, we actually had students who tried to get out of class saying things like, ‘I forgot my book in my locker,'” Mr. Yakubovsky said. “The teacher would say, ‘What locker?’ You can’t blame a guy for trying.”

Costs manageable

And while more textbooks cost more, the expense is not extreme, they say. Several classes can share the classroom’s set of books. Dr. Tribble estimated that Birdville’s textbook costs are only about 10 to 15 percent higher than they would be at a school with lockers.

But she said designing the school without lockers saved about $250,000 during construction.

A full-length locker can cost $100 to $150, and maintenance isn’t cheap, either. Going lockerless allows architects to save thousands of square feet in their floor plans. That can cut back on construction costs or allow other extras to be included in the building.

“Now you can build that library you want, or that auditorium you thought you couldn’t afford,” Mr. Bartosh said.

In the Birdville school district, only Birdville High is without lockers. But leaders at the district’s two other high schools, Haltom and Richland, are hoping they’ll join them soon.

“Everybody’s eager to expand it,” said Karen Hibbs, Birdville ISD’s director of secondary instruction.

“It makes a high school a more pleasant place to be.”