Search form

School Building Boom: BUILD Before the Schools Go BOOM!

A 1996 study clearly draws a correlation between the condition of school buildings and the student learning that goes on in those buildings. Recognizing the sorry state of many of America's schools -- along with a growing student population and the need to make room for new technology -- many cities and towns are taking long-overdue action. This week, experts Joe Agron and Paul Abramson share with Education World readers their observations and predictions about the current building boom in America's schools. Included: On-line resources to help educators make a case for school construction or renovation.

The condition of school buildings across the country has been a hot issue among educators for several years -- but now the fire is spreading! In a survey conducted last fall by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), "the condition and capacity of school buildings" was selected as the number one infrastructure concern of all Americans. In that survey, the sorry condition of our schools outpolled concerns over the condition of our roads and bridges, over water quality, and over traffic congestion.

The growing concern over the deplorable condition of our schools can be seen in town after town and city after city. The United States is in the midst of a school building boom!


"The dreadful state of too many of our aging public schools" is one of the primary reasons for the school building boom we're experiencing, said Paul Abramson, who produces an annual School Construction Report for School Planning & Management magazine. "Schools that were built during the baby boom period were built when the idea was to get them up cheap and fast," Abramson told Education World. That may explain why about a quarter of the $15 billion spent last year on school construction was spent on renovating, upgrading, and modernizing existing buildings; another $4 billion was spent on additions to standing buildings.

"Districts overall have an easier time securing funding for modernization, retrofit, and additions than for totally new construction, which typically is much more expensive," says Joe Agron, editor of American School and University, which recently published its 25th annual Education Construction Study.

"You probably are familiar with the U.S. General Accounting Office's estimate that $112 billion is immediately needed just to get America's schools into a condition where students can enter them safely," Agron told Education World. "That estimate -- which the GAO admits was very conservative -- was made in 1995, and the problem has grown exponentially. This is requiring schools to spend tremendous sums to repair and upgrade existing facilities."


Schools are aging all across the United States. According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Education and the National Center for Education Statistics,

  • the average age of public school buildings in the United States is 42 years.

  • almost half (45 percent) of U.S. public schools were built between 1950 and 1969.

  • 73 percent of school buildings reported having had at least one major renovation.

  • of schools built in 1985 or later, 59 percent were connected to the Internet in 1995, whereas 42 percent were connected among schools built before 1969 and renovated before 1980 (or never renovated).

Studies support the need for school buildings that are in good repair. In 1996, an often-referenced study by Dr. Glenn Eartham of Virginia Polytechnic and State University compared student test scores in buildings that were "above standard" and "substandard." His study documented a relationship between student learning and building condition. Other studies point to the benefits of technology on student learning; but many schools are pressed for space to provide students with access to that technology.


After the aging infrastructure and the growing student population, experts say technology and new programs are probably the third major cause of the current building boom.

"Schools today are being asked to accommodate much more than they ever did before," Joe Agron told Education World. "If you put a computer and a workstation in a classroom, you displace a child. Multiply that by the number of computers in classrooms and you have a need for more space.

"Unlike schools built as late as the 1970s, districts must now plan on including additional spaces in their facilities -- such as computer labs, media centers, gifted classrooms, special-education rooms, pre-K classrooms, and the list goes on," adds Agron. "All of this requires space."

"The typical elementary school in 1970 provided 70 square feet per student," says Paul Abramson. "Today it's 110 square feet per student. Rooms of less than 900 square feet simply cannot properly support elementary school programs."

"There's no obvious end in sight to the growth in school construction," adds Abramson. "As a mater of fact, with the student population bulge moving into the upper grades -- the more expensive upper grades -- of middle and high school, spending is likely to increase. I would expect it to go up about a billion dollars a year for at least the next five years assuming the economy stays strong and the political climate remains pro-education."


While the ASCE study indicates that the condition of our schools is a major concern of Americans, that doesn't mean repairing those school is an easy sell in every community. For example, voters in Decatur, Illinois, recently defeated a referendum that would have helped bring schools there up to standards. Soon after the referendum was defeated, Decatur's Roosevelt High School made news headlines when a 20-foot chunk of ceiling tiles, two light fixtures, and a support beam fell down a stairwell.

"[That] basically underscores that we need to renovate our buildings or build new," Decatur school superintendent Kenneth Arndt told Leadership News. (See In School Construction, A Tale of Two Cities, published in June by the American Association of School Administrators.)


For educators -- like those in Decatur -- for whom "selling" even the most necessary of repairs is an uphill battle, the Internet has many resources to offer. Among the tools that might be of help include:


Next week, Education World tells the story of a special Adopt-a-School program that got the entire city of Detroit involved in an $80 million summer building repair program. See Detroit School Repair Program: A Model for Others next week in Education World.

Related Articles from Education World

Please check out our other articles this week:

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World