Decaying Schools May Stunt Learning

Broken heating units and cracked floors may not be simply an aesthetic inconvenience, experts say.

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Many public high schools are falling behind on maintenance, which some experts say may affect student learning.
Many public high schools are falling behind on maintenance, which some experts say may affect student learning.

Decaying rats, mold infestation, collapsed ceilings: you name it, Jennifer Little has lived through it. Not in a rundown house or apartment building, but in her school.

"It's unbelievable what I've lived through, and what the kids lived through," says the former teacher, who logged more than 35 years teaching students from elementary school to high school before leaving the profession in 2010.

Little's challenges with classroom conditions are not isolated incidents. School districts across the country struggle to find the resources — both monetary and manual — to keep up with maintenance requests.

[Read how schools saved money by going green.]

Restoring the nation's aging schools to working order would carry a price tag of nearly $271 billion, according to a report released last week by the Center for Green Schools. But working order could simply mean repairing shoddy electrical systems, not equipping the school to accommodate computer labs.

"If we add to that [figure] modernization costs to ensure that our schools meet today's education, safety and health standards, we estimate a jaw-dropping $542 billion would be required," Rachel Gutter, director of the Center for Green Schools, and Rick Fedrizzi, president and CEO of the U.S. Green Building Council, note in the report's preface.

Los Angeles Unified School District, which serves roughly 207,500 high school students, averages 1,100 maintenance requests daily, ranging from peeling paint to rotting ceiling beams. Many of those requests are tacked on to a backlog of more than 35,000 open work orders, according to a March 12 article in the Los Angeles Times.

The price of rundown classrooms can't simply be measured in dollars and cents, or open work orders, says Little, the former teacher and founder of Parents Teach Kids, which coaches parents to help their students.

"When AC or heating doesn't work, students have difficulty concentrating. When windows leak air or water, it is difficult for them to think that what they do matters," Little said via email. "When mold grows in the walls, ceilings and behind cabinets, students' health issues affect attention and behavior."

[Find out why student engagement nosedives in high school.]

While extreme conditions — decaying rats, for instance — can adversely affect student learning (and health), those cases are few and far between, says Larry Sand, president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network.

"Most conditions are irrelevant. It's really the quality of the teacher. It's that person standing in the front of the room … that's really going to set the tone," says Sand, who taught for nearly 30 years, mainly in the New York City Public Schools system and the Los Angeles Unified School District.

[Discover why culture may be key to school reform.]

Peeling paint, broken air conditioning and cracked windows are small inconveniences and it is up to teachers to put that into perspective, he says.

"If you want to empower a kid, tell them these things are minor glitches in the road," says Sand, who taught in inner-city schools in Harlem and South Central LA. "Tell them, 'We have much more important things to do today than to worry about the cracks in the ceiling and the broken window.'"

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