One week before the end of spring term at the Emily Griffith Opportunity School, the shoe-repair shop is not just deserted, but decimated. Where students once learned the footwear basics, nothing remains but a few wooden tables and the lingering smell of polish. One floor up, in the watch-and-clock-repair lab, an English as a Second Language class struggles to learn how to pronounce the word "shoulder." On this particular evening, the last of the watch-repair classes will wind up, after which the department will close permanently. And across the alley, the precision-machining shop, which ran noisily for 23 hours a day, seven days a week during World War II, is entirely silent.
Head machining instructor Rodney Korsbon received notice on April 24 that his program had been canceled and that his teaching contract was not going to be renewed. "I had to tell my people about it," says Korsbon. "If my program was over, why should they show up?"
Since the 1930s, precision machining has been a cornerstone of the nationally known Emily Griffith School, one of the first public schools in the country to offer a huge variety of vocational classes to anyone, of any age, at almost any hour--and at bargain prices, which often meant for free. But Emily Griffith's success has never made it immune to budget cuts by the bosses at Denver Public Schools, and the latest have been the worst.
"I had no idea this would happen--are you kidding?" Korsbon says. "I mean, after walking around seeing other programs with no one in them--and mine was so full it was closed to registration?"
Korsbon's supervisors have let it be known that precision machining is one of several Emily Griffith programs to be axed because they no longer attract enough students or bring in enough money. Furthermore, they say, constantly changing curricula can--and should--be business as usual at the downtown school that has always had an eminently practical mission.
"The fact is that the school is changing to meet the needs of industry--and we always have," says school spokeswoman Mary Kay Mauro. While some traditional trades may become obsolete, she says, there will always be a corresponding groundswell of interest in classes in health care and high tech.
"`High tech'?" replies Korsbon. "Yeah? Well, what's all that behind me?"
Behind him, in fact, are more than fifty lathes, grinders and other machining stalwarts, some dating back to the 1930s and 1940s, and some with the latest computerized components.
"I always tried to create that this was a working machine shop," Korsbon says. "You could enter at any time in the school year and learn a trade. That being the case, I could never actually hold a formal class, but if Joe Blow had a problem with his trigonometry, I'd bring him in here." He shows off his turn-of-the-century blackboard, where several complex angles are still sketched in chalk. "It made learning fun, and being a machinist is a great trade. It used to be one man standing at one machine for 25 years of his life, but now it's more versatile. You've got to know all the machines, all the computer programs."
Now in his mid-forties, Korsbon decided to become a machinist in 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War. He went from making "big guns for the Navy" to Houston during the oil boom to a job offer at Rocky Flats in 1978, which he declined after experiencing the plant's intense security. Instead, he worked for three years at a Denver aviation plant, after which he applied for an Emily Griffith teaching position.
"I took a huge pay cut," he recalls, "say, 30 percent." He never regretted it, even though he spent the first few years on the job learning how to communicate with students who spoke not one word of English.
"Actually, I got to enjoy all that," he says. "It went in patterns. You got waves of Vietnamese, Eastern Europeans, people from Africa. You'd be amazed how you learn to be understood." Alongside the recent immigrants was a stratum of highly trained professionals--engineers who wanted hands-on experience and several orthopedic surgeons, who, tired of the high cost of tools, learned how to machine them themselves. And the backbone of the class, always, Korsbon says, were "every school district's screwups, the 25-year-olds who finally realized Burger King doesn't cut it and came here to learn a good trade, and all it cost them was a buck an hour."
This year's seventeen graduates went on to earn between $7.50 and $10 per hour in a field Korsbon insists is not dying out but booming. "The small job shops are big in Denver," he says. "I placed sixteen of my graduates this year. Machine business just keeps coming to Denver--and why shouldn't it? Do you know what the engine of a car is? Do you know who makes the parts? Right. A machinist."
"I hear there are many jobs out there for machinists," agrees Emily Griffith's acting principal, Marla Marcott. "But the demand has simply not kept up. We have been unable to attract enough students to the program, and we have reluctantly decided that it is perhaps not the best use of our space. In fact, we had to begin looking at a lot of these programs more seriously three years ago."
That was when DPS announced it would begin cutting funds to the Opportunity School, which opened in 1916 as a free, adult-education arm of the public schools. Emily Griffith, who began her career in the 1880s teaching illiterate children in a one-room sod schoolhouse in Nebraska, had long dreamt of providing practical education "for all who wish to learn." Griffith insisted that classes be held when working people could realistically attend--at night, on weekends, whenever they were needed. The day the Opportunity School opened, students were greeted by Miss Griffith herself, who sat at a desk just inside the front door, gauging her students' needs and attending to them immediately. It didn't take long, for instance, for her to realize that students were sitting through classes faint with hunger. In response, Griffith began bringing a kettle of soup with her to school. Thus fortified, students went on to learn such practical skills as bricklaying, plumbing, telegraphy, English "for future citizens," cosmetology, linoleum laying, and the design and construction of hats--or millinery, a word that has all but lost its meaning today.
"There were seven courses in millinery when I came here in 1963 to teach food service," Marcott recalls. "Ironically, that's when we began teasing our hair, and that's when millinery started to go downhill."
Marcott stayed on through the demise of hats, working her way out of food service and into marketing and school administration. A devout follower of Emily Griffith's principles, Marcott has been known to serve soup at school fundraisers and appear in a large picture hat like the one Miss Griffith always wore. "I always thought I had the perfect job," she says, contemplating her retirement this fall, after which she will stay on as director of the Emily Griffith Foundation--as well as a part-time student of computer science and Chinese cooking.
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But her job, she says, was never without challenges. "In 1988," she recalls, "DPS gave us $3.1 million. This year it was down to nothing. We knew that was going to happen, and we knew we would have to run the school like a business. We cut staff, began charging Denver residents tuition and did a cost analysis of every program."
Which is when the mainstay trades began to go. Last year shoe repair bit the dust, cut to make room for more classes in licensed practical nursing. This Thursday, audio/ visual electronics, watch-and-clock repair and precision machining will close. Korsbon may have operated with one full section of future machinists, Marcott asserts, but at one time three classes, with a total of eighty students, operated from morning till evening. "It's expensive to train seventeen students in precision machining," she says. "And the bottom line is, we can't keep on losing money. Yes, some of these programs have been around since before the Second World War, but the demand simply hasn't kept up."
Korsbon, alone in the doomed machine shop, is updating his resume. Much as he touts the machinist's life, he'd rather teach--if only a precision-machining teaching job were open. He admits to being bitter.
"Emily Griffith would hate this," he says. "She was always for the little guy, the everyday laborer. And we still have those guys, everywhere you look.