Why school lockers are going the way of rotary phones and vinyl records

Lockers obsolete? Not at Bailey Middle School

School lockers have been a rite of passage for generations. Everyone can recall the fear they'd forget their combination, along with the pride that came from personalizing their own space or seeing their locker decked out for a birthday or sports
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School lockers have been a rite of passage for generations. Everyone can recall the fear they'd forget their combination, along with the pride that came from personalizing their own space or seeing their locker decked out for a birthday or sports

Don’t tell sixth-graders Layla Watts and Brianna Yates that school lockers may be going the way of phone booths. They started getting excited in fifth grade, and Layla bought her padlock early to practice the combination during the summer.

By the time she got to Bailey Middle School, Layla had acquired a blue plush locker rug, magnetic polka-dotted wallpaper, a tiny battery-powered chandelier and beaded curtains (yes, folks, these are all real things – Google “locker accessories.”)

But Bailey, in suburban Cornelius, is becoming an outlier in its enthusiastic embrace of lockers, says Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Police Chief Randy Hagler. He started getting up close with lockers when the department bought a drug-sniffing dog last year – and found that in many schools, not only are there no drugs in lockers, there’s nothing there.

“It’s my impression that not many (schools) at all are using them,” Hagler said. “It was a little shock to me.”

Some middle schools, such as Ranson and Alexander Graham, have abandoned lockers altogether. The reason, their principals say, is that classroom Chromebooks have reduced the need to lug textbooks.

“With the Chromebooks and limited time to spend at a locker, students now carry everything in a book bag to their classes,” said Alexander Graham Principal Robert Folk. “Lockers will probably be a thing of the past.”

And some schools find that even when lockers are offered, students say “no thanks,” especially in high school.

“All of the textbooks and notes we once stuffed inside our lockers are now stored online, or better yet, neatly filed on a flash drive hanging on our key chains,” said Righteous Keitt, a sophomore at Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology.

“I just feel like it’s an extreme waste of space,” said Michael Rose, a Myers Park High junior who says he only knows one person who uses a locker.

Myers Park Principal Mark Bosco said he asked CMS to leave the lockers out of the last two classroom buildings added to his sprawling campus, using the money to expand instructional space.

At Rocky River High, rows of rejected lockers are zip-tied shut. Principal Ericia Turner says she has thought about replacing them with display cases to showcase student achievement.

“Textbooks are becoming obsolete,” Turner explains. “Most teachers are requiring their students to turn in classwork and homework via email, Google Classroom or Canvas.”

For many adults, lockers loom in memory as a rite of passage. The fear of forgetting the combination may haunt anxiety dreams, but the pride in that first tiny piece of personal real estate lingers, too.

“Location, location, location. There were some prime locations where you wanted your locker,” muses Frank Barnes, chief accountability officer for CMS. He recalls trying to jam his winter coat into a small upper-level locker in middle school. “I remember getting that floor-to-ceiling locker when I was an eighth-grader. That was the best!”

But when he asked his daughters about their lockers, he was rebuffed: “Dad! No one uses lockers.”

For the adults in charge, lockers are a mixed blessing. Superintendent Ann Clark was principal of Vance High in the late 1990s, and she remembers the anxiety that followed the school shooting in Columbine, Colo. When pranksters called in bomb threats afterward, the entire student body would have to wait outside while she and other faculty searched every locker, she said. And at year’s end, they’d make another sweep to clear out the detritus.

From a safety standpoint, Chief Hagler says, there’s no clear winner in the locker/no locker debate. Contraband can be stashed in lockers or book bags, and checking every locker after a bomb threat is no longer protocol.

Educators, too, say there are tradeoffs. Bulky book bags can be tripping hazards in crowded classrooms, but lockers can be a place where students jostle each other and loiter when they should be getting to class.

At Bailey Middle, there are more students than lockers, so some students have to double up. Layla and Brianna say there’s a hierarchy: A solo locker is better than sharing, and the lockers that jut into the hall under countertops are better than the stacked ones that line the walls.

“The bottom corner lockers are the worst,” Brianna explains. “I’m surrounded by boys. I get hit in the head about every day.”

Brianna and Layla, who have been friends since kindergarten at J.V. Washam Elementary, are clearly building memories. Maybe someday they’ll share them with children who have never seen a locker.

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms