This issue of ASBJ is dedicated to school facilities. Your facilities are the front porch of your school district; everyone sees them every day. National reports show that the state of those facilities varies from state to state, community to community, and school to school. Thinking about school facilities brings to mind the variety of buildings I have worked in.
Long ago (1982), I worked in a building constructed in the 1900s. It had been modernized with the addition of giant window air conditioners that operated at the same general decibels as a Boeing 747 at takeoff. In the sweltering heat of Western Kansas, summer days represented a trade-off between overheating and under-hearing. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the average age of a school building is 43 years. That school has long since closed, but there are plenty of operating buildings from that era on the tail end of that bell curve.
Thirty percent of school buildings in America were built before 1950. The postwar baby boom meant 1950 to 1969 were banner years for construction, with 45 percent of schools being built then. Energy conservation was not a consideration, so large banks of single-pane windows strained and whistled under the strong winds of West Texas, where I taught my first year. Piles of dust would drift on shelves by those rattling windows.
From 1970 to 1984, energy prices soared, disco came and went, and 17 percent of our schools were built. This was a time of experimenting with pods, windowless buildings, open classrooms, and incredibly wide ties. As an assistant principal charged with maintaining a degree of order in a circular, open-concept building, my head was often filled with negative thoughts about the architects who imagined these were great ideas for teenagers.
It is fun to reminisce about buildings over a long career. But nostalgia should not mask the reality of how important maintaining a proper environment is to the learning process. Ten years ago, a report by NCES indicated that while 76 percent of buildings were in excellent or good condition, building systems need attention. Windows, HVAC, finishes, lighting, and security systems were considered fair to poor at rates of 29 percent-45 percent.
Since the study was published, the importance of proper ventilation and proper security measures has become more apparent. Recent improvements to school buildings have focused on safety and security measures.
Beyond concerns about the condition of school buildings, it is essential to note that as NCES reports, “America’s oldest schools have a higher proportion of children in poverty. Of schools with less than 20 percent of children eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches, 20 percent were built before 1950. In contrast, of schools with 20 to 49 percent and 50 percent or more children eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches, 29 percent and 34 percent were built before 1950.”
Children in poverty are twice as likely to learn in an old building. Kids from small, rural areas had the same likelihood of being in an old building. The data indicates a discrepancy in student-learning environments based upon geography and level of income.
Recently, NSBA has supported additional funding for schools focused on pandemic recovery. Many districts have used a portion of these funds to improve HVAC systems. Board members across the country must make tough choices about how to spend their allotted budgets to improve student learning. When funds are limited, maintenance often gets deferred for more direct learning inputs like great teachers, curriculum, and instructional support. We hope that you enjoy this issue of ASBJ as you consider these tough choices in the future.