Wednesday, December 21, 2011

"Form vs Function" - January East Side Monthly column online

The January East Side Monthly is online, and with it my column on the impact of the quality of school facilities on learning. Kudos to ESM for the spiffy new online format! 

Here's the original version of the piece (bit longer, with links, but pretty much the same):

When our family chose to move to the East Side of Providence in 2004, we were gratified to see the wide range of K-12 schools in the neighborhood. As a family with two (at the time) and (now) three young kids, we wanted to live in a place where we would have options and possibilities that would fit our kids as they developed. That reasoning applied to choosing Providence generally and the East Side specifically. We had relocated from an urban area and wanted to remain city-dwellers for a number of reasons, including diversity within schools and a diversity of choice among schools. At that time, we toured a number of public, private, and religiously affiliated East Side schools and since that time, I’ve given many tours of one school in particular (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School, which all of my kids have attended or are currently enrolled).

Before now, I have not spent a whole lot of time analyzing the schools’ facilities for my own kids, and for the most part, the family members to whom I have given tours of King also have not made the school building their chief concern.  Speaking for myself, the physical structure of the buildings seemed too much of an immutable element for serious consideration. I certainly noticed whether or not the buildings were clean and well cared for, but didn’t think critically beyond that. Instead, I focused on what I could learn about the schools’ culture, climate, values, curriculum, atmosphere, and habits of family involvement in kids’ education. Those were the factors that seemed to matter most at the time and for the most part, continue to have the strongest influence on the quality of my kids’ education.

That said, for those who wish to ponder the question of whether and how school facilities matter to young people’s learning and lasting success in school, the K-12 school facilities in our neighborhood offer the full range of what’s possible. Beautiful renovations and lovely campuses on lush lawns contrast with timeworn buildings and schools situated in buildings not necessarily designed as schools at all. We have new and aged buildings. Our neighborhood has school facilities that demonstrate care and thoughtfulness architecturally, environmentally and educationally and school facilities that demonstrate exactly the opposite qualities. There’s a huge and inequitable range of quality among school facilities nationwide, and the East Side replicates that.

So how much does do the quality of facilities really matter to learning? Part of the reason that I write this column is to share what turns up when I dive into educational research to answer questions that nag me. I figure if I’m thinking about something, you might be, too. So here’s what I found out about the ways that school facilities affect the experience of teaching and learning.

According to the 21st Century School Fund, a Washington DC-based nonprofit dedicated to the idea that communities are responsible for creating healthy, safe, and educationally appropriate learning environments, nearly every recent study shows a correlation between the condition of school facilities and educational achievement once student demographic factors were excluded as factors. Students test results are lower in inadequate facilities, as are attendance rates. Drop out rates are higher.

Poor facilities also directly impact the health of everyone who spends time in them, students and teachers alike. According to the United States General Accounting Office, one in five students nationwide attend poorly ventilated schools--perhaps more in Providence given the age of and wear and tear on many of our city’s schools. Temperature, noise, and access to daylight add to the factors that detract from adequate conditions for teaching and learning.

Inadequate facilities can also affect a school’s ability to retain high quality educators; teachers are more likely to take more sick days in building with poor air quality and severely run-down facilities and are less likely to remain at those schools for the long haul. Certainly, high-quality environments for teaching and learning aren’t the only factor for a school’s success. Every day, in our neighborhood, across the city, and nationwide, we see wonderful teachers creating positive change in the lives of young people in cruddy conditions. We know that strong relationships among and between students and educators, excellent curricula, and other factors matter hugely.

Financial crises have forced Providence Public Schools have had to abandon the facilities master planning recommendations presented to the Providence School Board in 2010, and our current stagnant financial climate makes capital improvements more challenging for all of our neighborhood’s schools. That said, given the right kinds of fundraising and financial management, independent schools may have more control over their facilities development than public schools, which are necessarily included in the overall planning processes of the Providence Public School district, which itself is directly affected by the school building funding and regulations that come from the Rhode Island Department of Education and the General Assembly. At the end of the most recent General Assembly legislative session, school building and capital improvement funds were put on an “indefinite freeze” statewide.

It’s tempting, given the challenges that we face, to bury our heads in the sands of deferral. But we can’t continue to pretend that facilities don’t matter as much as they do. We need to advocate for proper funding to ensure that all of our schools offer at least basic appropriate conditions for teaching and learning, including up-to-speed technological infrastructure. You may want to follow the progress of H.R. 2948, the Fix America's Schools Today (FAST) bill, introduced in September 2011. Co-sponsored by U.S. Representative David Cicilline, the FAST bill is designed to be both a school improvement program and a jobs stimulus bill. Rhode Island’s legislators should consider complementary state level legislation so that we can ensure that the places for learning in our neighborhood, and all neighborhoods, offer fair access to learning and can remain at the center of our communities.

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