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Rebuilding the Classroom

Article by John Prestbo August 20, 2012 //   3 minute read

A couple of weeks ago I was grumping in this space about how our public-school education system needs revamping as part of our campaign to achieve 4% economic growth annually. My focus was on the quality of education, which is to say what goes on in the classroom. What I didn’t realize was that the classroom itself must be fixed, too. Enlightenment comes via an article on school physical plants in Parade, the magazine supplement that is delivered with many Sunday newspapers. “The ABCs of School Makeovers” urges that the public debate about teacher accountability, test scores, and so on should be expanded to include the “crumbling, antiquated facilities that are hostile to learning and depressing to the children and teachers who spend many of their waking hours there.” An estimated 40% of this nation’s 100,000 public schools are in “bad to poor condition,” the article says, and it could take $271 billion to remodel, refurbish and in some cases reconstruct them into decent shape. But the responsibility for all this lies with local school districts, almost all of which are desperately short of money and are postponing even basic repairs to minimize layoffs. The article’s two success stories emphasize the need for sacrifice and careful planning. In Santa Ana, California, working-class parents saw that the decrepit schools were unacceptable and approved a $200 million bond issue in the recession year of 2008. Though taxes on a modest house rose by only about $100 a year, many financially strapped parents had to tighten their belts and some were forced to collect recyclables to afford the increase. This year, 89% of the district’s high-school seniors passed the state exit exam, up from 82% in 2011. Warren County, Kentucky, had to replace a 60-year-old elementary school. The district challenged the architect to design a building that produced more energy than it used. Geothermal heating/cooling, solar lighting tubes, 2,700 solar panels, room-occupancy sensors and convection ovens in the kitchen all contributed to meeting the goal. The building feeds excess electricity into the grid. No matter how good and dedicated the teachers or how robust the curriculum, students can’t do their best in dimly lit, hot, moldy, termite-infested, and leaky schoolrooms. This is a national problem — part of the entire education issue currently being debated — that far outstrips local resources. Like our aging highways and bridges, it needs attention. Soon.