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Its Time to Repair
Americas Schools

Stories of vermin, mold, asbestos, and water in classrooms have become all too common in the U.S., according to a report from the American Federation of Teachers. Its time for the nation to commit itself to repairing its aging and deteriorating schools. Included: Recommendations for tackling the problem at the national and state level.

Bathrooms and classrooms so damp that mushrooms and mold sprout. Water dripping from ceilings and temperatures so cold that sometimes the drips freeze into icicles. Rats and mice finding their way into schools through building and window cracks.

Does this sound like school conditions in an impoverished nation? Surprisingly, no. These are conditions reported by more than 1,000 U.S. school employees to a survey on the physical environment at their schools conducted by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). The responses, which came from urban, rural, and suburban teachers, are part of the AFT report, Building Minds, Minding Buildings: Turning Crumbling Schools into Environments for Learning.

In the report, the AFT said that repairing the deplorable conditions in many U.S. public schools should be a national priority. Problems such as mold, poor air quality, fluctuating temperatures and other factors lead to more illnesses among students and staff members, higher absenteeism, and make it more difficult for children to learn, according to the report.

This is a health issue, a safety issue and an educational issue, said Antonia Cortese, AFT executive vice president, in an AFT press release. In the worlds richest nation, every child is entitled to learn in clean, well-maintained classrooms. As we try to build young minds, we also have to mind school buildings.

Cortese talked with Education World about the report, and the AFTs recommendations for overhauling U.S. schools.

Education World: Twenty years ago the AFT called for a Marshall Plan approach to renovating urban schools. Since then, how have conditions changed? Is this no longer an issue just for urban schools?

Alfie Kohn
Antonia Cortese

Antonia Cortese: Unfortunately, the only thing that has really changed for most of these schools is that theyre ten years older! In fact, on average, school districts have cut their maintenance and operating (M&O) budgets by about 2 percent over the last decade. So, schools that were in disrepair ten years ago are likely worse off today.

This isnt just a problem with older, urban school buildings. Even schools that may have been new or in excellent condition five or ten years ago are beginning to see the affects of these M&O cutbacks -- deteriorating air quality, aging heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems; problems keeping up with pest control programs and slow turnaround time for routine repairs. Without proper maintenance, even todays state-of-the-art school building can eventually become unhealthy, unclean, and unsafe.

EW: What factors have contributed to so many school buildings falling into disrepair?

Cortese:When combined with the M&O budget cuts, the age of many school buildings -- particularly in urban areas -- is a huge factor. If a district is forced to cut maintenance budgets on an aging school building, the results can be disastrous. Many of our members are working in schools that are running HVAC systems from the 1960s. The average school building in Philadelphia is 82 years old. Clearly, cutting funds for repairs and upkeep can be devastating to these buildings.

"The average school building in Philadelphia is 82 years old.
Overcrowding is another factor. In 2004, the U.S. Department of Education reported that 8.5 percent of our nations schools had exceeded their capacity for students. Many schools either have temporary facilities that serve as primary classrooms, or are forced to hold classes in common areas such as hallways, cafeterias -- even janitors closets! Of course, this overcrowding puts more wear and tear on already strained buildings. More importantly, forcing students into areas not designed for learning has an impact on academic achievement.

But the biggest contributor to school building disrepair is lack of attention. When you hear public dialogue about how to improve education in America, the focus is on things like high-quality teaching, challenging curriculum, and standardized test scores. Of course, these are all critical pieces to the puzzle. But while were discussing who and what goes into quality education, we need to spend equal time discussing the where. School is where our children spend most of their days. There is no excuse for sending them into buildings that are unhealthy or unfit for learning.

EW: Funds for building repairs and maintenance usually are included in local school budgets, and often funds for capital improvements get cut to pay for other expenses, like salaries and classroom supplies. What can be done to help make capital improvements a priority and help communities pay for them?

Cortese: Clearly, it will take a significant financial investment to adequately address the problems in our school buildings. The U.S. General Accounting Office reported that it would take about $112 billion to repair the 25,000 schools that need extensive repairs or replacement That was in 1995 -- more than ten years ago! We can only imagine how much that dollar figure has grown as these buildings have continued to age.

We would also like to see the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) amended to include a learning environment index, which would require schools and districts to make public the conditions of learning and require that districts demonstrate improvements each year. Were not suggesting that this index be tied to NCLBs Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) provision, but we feel that schools should be making and reporting improvements to the teaching and learning environment on an annual basis.

There are also a number of things that can be done at the state and local level to address building conditions. For instance, states can and should adhere to stronger standards for school building and systems inspections, and develop clear guidelines for school renovation practices. Schools are also healthier when districts have uniform and comprehensive pest control and maintenance plans.

Finally, the AFT would love to see increased involvement of union members in the planning of new school construction and renovation projects.

EW: How does the condition of school facilities affect teachers and students performance?

Cortese: We have to start viewing the built environment as a major educational issue, because it affects so many aspects of quality public education. Not only does the physical condition of a school impact student learning, but it can also be a detriment to retaining highly qualified teachers and the other staff who keep schools running.

"If a district is forced to cut maintenance budgets on an aging school building, the results can be disastrous.
There are numerous studies that point to the difference in academic advantage enjoyed by students in well-maintained buildings, including one by the Department of Education, which concluded that "the overall evidence strongly suggests that poor environments in schools due primarily to effects of indoor pollutants adversely influence the health, performance and attendance of students." The American Lung Association has documented the health affects of poor air qualities in schools, noting that schoolchildren have missed as much as 12 million school days since 2000, due to asthma exacerbated by poor air quality.

Overcrowding in schools is another major problem for students, as schools are forced to place students in rooms and common areas that are not designed for instruction. Noise levels and inability to see or hear lessons makes concentration more difficult. These distractions often lead to disciplinary problems for students.

All of this makes it harder for teachers and paraprofessionals to educate our children. Its no secret that many schools have a hard time holding on to educators. When we survey our members, poor learning environments are often cited as a main reason for leaving a school -- or, leaving the education field altogether.

These issues tend to be more prevalent in schools that are located in high poverty areas -- the very same hard-to-staff, struggling schools that the NCLB law is attempting to help. If were really serious about improving education, then we have to fix these buildings.

EW: The conditions that exist in many school buildings would be considered health hazards in other sectors of society such as private industry or housing. Why cant local or state officials issue sanctions or force schools to close unless repairs are made?

Cortese: There are very few enforceable standards for air quality, building inspections or occupancy restrictions in public schools. Its inexcusable for the wealthiest nation in the world to send so many children to unhealthy buildings for six to eight hours a day. We are sending mixed messages to our children by telling them we care about their education, but not enough to fix their schools.

Every state is constitutionally bound to provide a free public (K-12) education to its citizens. Most school districts do not have the option of closing buildings for repairs or temporarily shutting down while new schools are built. We can be better prepared for the future by ensuring districts have adequate resources and plans in place to ensure peak performance in school buildings. Uniform standards for designing, building, renovating and maintaining school buildings would be a good start.

In addition, public employees in about half of the states are not covered under federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations, so its not a typical response on the part of school staff to seek the types of solutions outlined above. Often the unhealthy conditions go unattended -- even when the school looks like its clean. It would be much easier to address these health issues if public employees in every state were covered under OSHA.

EW:What can educators do to help improve the conditions of school buildings?

"School is where our children spend most of their days. There is no excuse for sending them into buildings that are unhealthy or unfit for learning.

Cortese: Schools anchor American communities in so many ways. They are part of the landscape of our neighborhoods and are often the most important factor for home buyers. Schools are central to the intellectual and social development of our children. Everyone -- teachers, support services, administration, parents, and community leaders -- has a stake in making sure that school buildings are safe and healthy environments for students and staff.

The AFT supports union representation on any body involved with the design and implementation of standards for building maintenance, operation, renovation and construction. There are several examples of AFT members actively working to raise the standards for school buildings. For example, in New York City, the United Federation of Teachers was instrumental in changing district policy on renovation. They did this by working with the New York City school board to develop a protocol requiring contractors to make sure that the school community is isolated from construction hazards and noise.

Union contracts often feature sections that outline specific elements of working and learning environments. For example, in Berkeley, California, the union contract establishes a joint labor/management committee to discuss facilities and personal safety issues.

There are several examples of teacher union representation on committees related to building maintenance and construction. In Lincoln, Rhode Island, the union president was on the selection committee for the architect and general contractor for several school construction projects. In Baldwin, New York, AFT members are active in the school districts health and safety committee.

As educators who spend their days and nights in these buildings, teachers and school staff -- from custodians to food service and office employees -- have the best insight on what contributes to optimal learning and working environments. But it will take the efforts of other community stakeholders and elected officials to make healthy school buildings an educational priority.

This e-interview with Antonia Cortese is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.


Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2007 Education World

Published 01/17/2007