When our family chose to move to the East Side 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 children, 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 our choosing Providence generally and the East Side specifically. At that time, we toured a number of public, private and religiously affiliated East Side schools. 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.
For the most part, the family members to whom I have given tours of King have not made the school’s physical structure 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.
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.
So how much does the quality of facilities really matter to learning? 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. Student test results are lower in inadequate facilities, as are attendance rates. Drop out rates are higher.
Run-down 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 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 buildings with poor air quality 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 factors 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 living in poor conditions. We know that strong relationships among and between students and educators and excellent curricula are among other factors that matter hugely.
Financial crises have forced Providence Public Schools to abandon the facilities master planning recommendations presented to the school board in 2010, and our current stagnant financial climate makes capital improvements more challenging for all of our neighborhood schools. In fact, school building and capital improvement funds have been put on an “indefinite freeze” statewide by the General Assemblies.
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 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.