Unsupportive Schools

I have some questions about how your schools support your teams.

As some background, my team, 2022, has been having issues with our school’s willingness to help our team. Our school is a selective enrollment public boarding school, (Illinois Math and Science Academy). One would think that we would have a well supported robotics program, but that isn’t the case at all.

From trying to shut us down, to not providing any staff members for leadership, to ridiculous rules for ordering parts, we have had many challenges in recent years. In addition, we have no contact with any team members or mentors from before 2017, and as such, much of our team history is lost. As an example, we have a swerve drive on a shelf in our lab, yet we don’t have the cad, or know who made it, we only know it was a 2014 off season project.

The only thing that our school supplies for us is a lab, and even then, things have been iffy with that space. We had a closet/small room that we stored our business stuff in, and we were given a week’s notice to vacate it. (keep in mind this space is in our lab). It was given to a computing club on campus (which we are happy about as they needed the space more than us), but with such short notice, most of the stuff from there is still disorganized and scattered.

The worst thing though is that most of the admin is not aware that our school even has a robotics team, and since our only adult representatives are parent volunteers, voicing concerns is impossible.

We pride ourselves on our student leadership, but with a new challenge at every turn, guiding the team through the season is practically impossible.

How much space does your team get?

Do you have faculty members mentoring and coaching your team?

Does your school provide transportation to competition?

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Hey, we should talk. Email me, marshall@team900.org.

We’re based at NCSSM (North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics) and your school is part of NCSSS (http://ncsss.org/membership/institutional-members), just like ours is.

Let’s talk. Maybe we can help.

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I worked with the team at the Missouri Academy of Math Science and Computing. They no longer exist because the academy shutdown. While I am not trying to downplay your situation just try to hold on to every moment you have because it seems like state governments are becoming increasingly hostile towards these types of programs (makes no sense to me).

When you mentioned most of the admin is not aware about the team I think that is really one of the first challenges you should tackle. Working with administration to problem solve and share a common vision is really important.

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It sounds like you need to increase your team’s visibility at your school. Your admin aren’t being supportive because they don’t really understand what your team is/does. Right now they see you as a typical club and don’t understand why you’re so much more demanding than Science Olympiad or MESA or the Math & Science Club. They need to see the robot, and hear from the kids who have been inspired. You need to show them that FRC is a completely different ball game from building mousetrap cars and toothpick bridges.

Try to get on the schedule to present your robot and talk about your program at a school board or staff meeting. Demo your robot at club rush in the fall. Talk to whoever runs your school’s morning announcements and make sure it’s announced when you start recruiting in the fall, when you come back from a competition, etc. TBA shows your team consistently wins awards - those should be going into the morning announcements and the school paper. Invite your principal and teachers to your local regional/district comp.

Your school is unlikely to “provide” a staff member to coach your team. No principal is going to tap a teacher on the shoulder and say “hey, now you have to coach a robotics team for 300+ hours a year outside of your contract”. You need to convince a staff member to coach your team, as a volunteer gig that’s going to be fun and have a huge impact on some students. Maybe eventually they’ll get a tiny coaching stipend or adjunct credit for it, but in my experience it’s pretty rare for a school to do much to support the staff mentor.

I’m guessing your “ridiculous rules for ordering parts” are similar to most schools’ policies for clubs (school holds your money and won’t reimburse you for anything unless the school approved it in advance), because they see you as a regular club. When you get a staff mentor they may be able to negotiate with the school to get you on a different set of rules. But at many schools, the only path is for the team to become an independent 501©(3), which (among other things) allows your team to have its own bank account and thus not be subject to the school’s financial policies. It has its own complexities, but if your school remains unwilling or unable to cooperate it may be worth it.

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Our team provides no financial or transportation wise support whatsoever.

However what we do have is a well maintained technology department which is very supportive of us. We get the metal shop and wood shop available to us with teachers willing to help out and supervise. (The shop is quite large for an average school and allows us to fabricate inhouse a lot).

In short the school provides our space + teachers which is amazing but nothing else.

Hello! We don’t have an unsupportive school or district, but we choose to be self funded so the tens of thousands of dollars we raise and spend ever year can go to other programs in danger of being cut. So all the school provides is space to work out of and some shared equipment.

Our space is located in the school’s STEM academy/wing which is comprised of a re-purposed auxiliary gym, a shop and a few classrooms. Of that space we get 1/2 of the gym, broken up into 2 diagonal quadrants. We use half for our work space and the other half for a practice field. Right now, one of the classrooms in this wing is vacant so the school’s letting us store some laptops and tech things there we need to keep under lock & key. Otherwise–we work in shared classroom/shop space and just clean up at the end of every night.

As for faculty mentors, we had two our first season but they had to stop due to personal/family reasons and we haven’t been able to find another one. On paper, our faculty mentor is our District’s K-12 STEM Director.

Lastly for transportation, the district does not provide our FRC team transportation to/from competitions but they do for our FLL and FTC teams.

If you have more questions about how we self fund every year or how we got our district/school hyped about our team, please let me know. Some years it’s a challenge (sometimes I’ve maxed out my personal credit card helping the team buy stuff and other year’s, we do pretty good (last year our school board wanted to hold a ceremony to recognize all we’ve done for our school/district.)

I think that’s your biggest issue to solve. We’ve gone through at least 4 administrations in my 8 years with my team and we’ve always made sure to get in front of the new leadership. Some of them will pay lip service and not actually care; but FRC is cool enough where you’ll get somebody (president, principal, vice principal, dean, etc…) to think what you’re doing is awesome.

If I were in your shoes I’d just keep trying to find the right administrator and flat out ask some of them to come to a competition with you. I used to be hesitant when we weren’t very good and would barely work. But, we started using the good teams like 148 and 3310 as examples of what could happen if we were properly supported, funded and allowed to do what we need to do.

Once you get somebody in a position of power in your school on-board the other issues like faculty member support, transportation, work space will solve itself (within reason for your school district…).

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Our school gives us a tiny closet that we only use for long term storage, and no build space. As far as I know they give us minimal to no money. However, they do not introduce undue administrative road blocks and we are self sustaining without them so it works out well.
Basically we stay out of each others way.

I feel your pain- the team I was part of in my freshman year was in a similar situation. We had no dedicated build space, stored materials in a hallway, our only mentor was a reluctant and uninterested teacher, our robot was built with the KOP and the $1,000 allocated to us by admin, etc.

It’s my second year with my new team, and the transition gave me whiplash. This team helped design a dedicated build space as part of larger school renovations, there’s never a question of if we can afford a custom chassis or to use Falcons, and we have close to a 1:1 or 1:2 mentor-student ratio. One mentor voluntarily built us a new worktable for the shop rather than buying one.

As other people have stated above, the biggest difference between these teams is the level of visibility, both to the student body and admin. As my freshman team was packing up for our regional, a passing student said “wait, we have a robotics team?” to his friend, whereas the dean of my current team’s school is a former mentor and teachers offer extra credit for students who attend our open house or cheer us on at regionals. Get out there, talk to random teachers, anything. Visibility won’t solve all your problems, but it’ll definitely help.

I know it is mention a couple times you mentioned your administration isn’t aware of your team. The fastest way to do this is to send them a thank you letter for what the school has given you. Thank them for what space you have, and how much it has benefited you. Tell them about the amazing season you are having, and invite them to come to your work space and competitions.

By mentioning this, it make them aware of you and know they as administration are appreciated. It builds amazing relationships. By building up these relationships, you may, in a couple years, be able to ask for more support. Since you have shown appreciation before asking for more, they should be very receptive to you requests. Ultimately, it’s on you to build up stronger relationships.

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When you correspond with the school and district administration, in addition to telling them about the benefits to the student body, tell them about possible benefits to them. At a recent parent meeting, the teacher who is the team sponsor said that the school district administration has been asking him about how to expand robotics through the school district. Currently, we are the only robotics team of any type associated with the school district. He said one of the incentives for the school district is the UIL points they can get through robotics that make them look better when compared with other schools/districts in the state.

UIL is only in Texas but there may be other similar organizations in your area that can be leveraged to give the school/district to give you more help and resources.

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School bureaucracy is a definite challenge for a lot of teams. Schools are not set up to order parts rapidly, and are often required by law to not pay sales taxes on their educational purchases. So you’ll have to work with your administration to find ways to set up POs (purchase orders) with common vendors and a process for requesting parts orders. But if you build a positive relationship with your administration, having a connection to a school provides the most stable backing for any team. Hopefully they can provide you a stable build space (even if its shared with other activities), a constant stream of new recruits (the student body), and the type of administrative/logistical bedrock that can help a team last the ages.

Not sure this particular issue is one that can be pinned on the school. Use this as an opportunity to start maintaining an alumni tracking list, so that future iterations of the team don’t suffer the same issue. Also keep in mind that there may never have been CAD for the swerve in the first place (plenty of teams didn’t really use CAD in the past, and the modules themselves may have been COTS).

Raise your visibility to the school administration! Set up a time for them to meet the team and see what you actually work on. Show off your robot(s) and explain your challenges.

We are permitted use of two classrooms, which are primarily used for various tech ed & CAD classes during the school day. In those classrooms, we have primary usage of a back room (large closet), although much of the storage space is still used for Tech Ed supplies. We tend to take over the hallway outside the classroom as well. We also have a separate, smaller, classroom in another building that we use as a practice space. This practice area has moved once during our 2.5 years of having access to it.

The school has multiple positions for coaching the Tech Club, most of which go to Dawgma mentors. 2020 is the first year since 2012 we’ve had a teacher directly involved in running the club. The way the coaching positions have worked for the past several seasons has primarily been aimed at making volunteer mentors into part-time school district employees in order to activate insurance policies. Getting teachers to fill those roles has always been a challenge once they realized how large the commitment is to FRC. They can’t force teachers into the role, only hope they jump at the chance for the coaching stipend.

Our school district provides no-cost transportation to all our district and local events. We have to pay for our transportation to Championship, should we qualify.

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Two rooms, maybe 1,000 ft^2, plus about half a field’s worth of practice area.

No. But two coaches (like myself) are paid as ‘coaches’ (like a sports team coach) so we’re staff, not faculty.

Yes.

This mindset scares me. You can absolutely voice concerns. It just sounds like you need a different venue to do so. Speaking at open houses, board meetings, staff/faculty meetings, and whole-school assemblies has helped us a great deal. Perhaps it would work for you too.

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Lots of great advice and answers in this thread but I think a lot of folks are missing that OP’s school is a public residential high school. This matters a TON and adds a lot of context to this conversation. It’s something that I did not appreciate the complexities of as a student but as a mentor who has had a team go from merely surviving in that environment to one where the team is thriving… there are a ton of oddities that most schools just do not have and you can’t appreciate until you’ve had to sort through them.

I’ve been in touch with a couple of these schools’ teams over the years (see the NCSSS link I listed earlier for a mostly complete list of these schools) and I would love to get in touch with more. We (these type of schools) should all be helping each other as our schools’ missions overlap with FIRST quite a bit. It’s something I think FIRST needs to do more with as well as these schools slowly transform into centers of excellence for these type of programs and others. It’s probably also fair to say that at least one FIRST employee has attended one of these schools.

OP, you should really email me (marshall@team900.org). Would love to chat, provide some guidance, and figure out what we (myself and others who I can bring into this) can do to help you and what we (our teams) can do to help each other.

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I used to be the head coach for 2338. We had a number of students that went to 2022 after their freshman year. I can probably put you in touch with them for team history stuff if you’d like. DM me and we can talk.

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Last year, we had 200 sqft of build and storage space and a class room after hours for meetings and computer work. We outfitted with our own shop equipment since the existing shop had nominal equipment and the shop instructor wouldnt give us access. We found some donated equipment from local businesses and repaired them. Some new out of team budget.

This summer, after an incredibly successful season, the predident of one of our sponsors just 2 blocks from the school, confronted the superintendant about our lack of support. This was at a support our schools rally for local businesses. Along with other changes happpening at the school, the school shop has moved to a new building and we now have the old shop and accompanying classroom.

Perhaps you have some influentoal sponsors that could help apply some “motivation”.

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As Marshall said, the school I go to runs very differently from traditional public schools. While we are a public school, our situation would be closer to a private boarding school than anything else.

I completely agree that getting the word out to administration is important, but the tiered system in place, means that our only contact is the director of athletics (who we have invited to competitions, invited to visit during one of our sessions, and held various meetings with). He unfortunately does not understand how much time, money, and work goes into running an FRC team. We still have not gotten through that a robotics team is in no way similar to a sports team.

For the first time in the school’s existence, there is a teachers union, and its formation, and the backlash from admin has thrown everyone for a loop. In general, things are very chaotic.

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How do you get the school ‘hyped’ about your team, and how ‘hyped’ are they really?

Clearly I don’t know much about your kind of school - what does it mean that your only contact is the director of athletics? Does the rest of your administration not have email addresses or office doors you can knock on? Do they just flat-out refuse to listen to anything robotics related?

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We have an old small bio classroom, maybe 30x25 ft room. We also borrow the wrestling gym when their season ends (which was about a week ago), giving us about 3/4 of a field’s worth of space. Our school doesn’t kick us any funds at all.

We have a math teacher who helps, but most of the mentoring and coaching is done by volunteers from parents and community.

Our school would bill us for any school bus use. Keep in mind we are a public school, but it costs money to use the school bus system. In any case, we’re not big enough to warrant the use of one - we just use parent drivers.

For what it’s worth, I’d recommend getting a teacher to volunteer at your team, they may be a way to get your concerns into the administration. At the very least, find a teacher who may be excited about the things your robotics team does and see if you can get them to raise concerns.