October 26, 2007

Don't forget facilities when addressing the gap

Source: NYSUT News Wire

Test scores, teaching methods, early childhood education, funding, remediation, recruitment and retention - all have stakes in closing the achievement gap. But what about the school buildings?

"Many people who talk about closing the gap don't even think about facilities," said Molly Hunter, a panelist on public school facilities at the NYSUT "Every Child Counts" symposium.

Hunter is director of the National Access Network, which promotes educational opportunities for children, especially those from low-income families and children of color. She also worked on the Campaign for Fiscal Equity.

When faced with crunches, "schools defer maintenance," Hunter said, responding to a participant who said her school in Western New York has problems with cleanliness, mold and a falling ceiling.

"In our music room, every time it rains, we bring in garbage pails," said David Cates of the Buffalo Educators Support Team.

Problems like these then affect student attendance and teacher retention, Hunter said.

"I get a lot of phone calls about substandard environments," said Wendy Hord, NYSUT health and safety specialist.

Poor conditions in buildings affect students, teachers, and School-Related Professionals. Hord said janitors have one of the highest rates of occupational asthma.

"It affects your morale and your students' ability to learn," said Fred Koelbel, president of the New York State Association of Superintendents of Buildings and Grounds, another panelist.

The struggle to make improvements comes from lessened budgets, and the lack of proper maintenance. Koelbel said 112 out of 120 districts reported increased square-footage but a decrease in maintenance funding and a loss of maintenance staff.

Ira Bethea, a participant from the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York, said schools should warranty projects. DASNY is legislated to assist even K-12 schools with construction and financing, and is "100 percent committed" to building with green initiatives.

Paul Tonko, a panelist and president of the New York State Energy Research Development Authority, said his agency has numerous services available to educators, administrators and school architects and engineers. These range from free simple tools to use, best practices, tips and free on-line courses on high performance design.

Additionally, NYSERDA has outfitted 50 schools with photovoltaic (PV) equipment, and worked with teachers to insert this energy mode into curriculums.

For all schools, he said, any look at energy begins with a school audit, which the authority provides. Schools need to address wise use of water, transportation, use of more day lighting, recycled materials and toxic-free environments.

"The entire educational community deserves to breathe cleaner air," he said.