By Hilderbrand Pelzer III
Author of Unlocking Potential
Having served as a teacher, assistant principal, and principal, as well as an assistant regional superintendent, I am constantly aware of the importance of balancing the needs of students and schools with building support and confidence in schools’ abilities to educate children. Unfortunately, the poor physical condition of schools leaves much to be desired. Too often, these aging buildings have reputations for having poor instructional quality, poor educational climates, and poor physical conditions.
The most pressing daily challenge of aging school buildings is their physical conditions. Like so many schools built nearly 100 years ago, they were designed to look a certain way: long hallways, rectangular classrooms shaped to accommodate rows of desks, a featureless gymnasium, a small cafeteria, narrow stairways, little natural light, cement campus grounds with little or no grass, and learning spaces that have been outgrown because of the age and size of the building and an increase in the student population. The range of needs in a school facility is substantial: maintenance needs include boiler replacement, plumbing, interior painting, and electrical and lighting upgrades. Moreover, today’s students have vast energy and extraordinary interests that differ from those of even three years ago. Therefore, repairing and modernizing a school’s learning space, must keep up with today’s students who are active, engaged, highly social, have their attention pulled in multiple directions, and are very culturally diverse.
The learning space within aging school buildings is compromised by many factors. Inoperable heating and ventilation can cause classes to be relocated. The gymnasium, which may double as the lunchroom, may be small, dark, damp, and very unpleasant. The floors, hallways, and stairways, which classes can attempt to enjoy by using the space for collaborative learning, reading, and exhibiting student work, are grimy and soiled, compounded by years of neglect and dirt buildup. The walls and ceilings, a great use of space for any school, need plaster and paint in warm colors that look cool to the students. The libraries haven’t been functional for a number of years. They need to be reshelved, refurnished, and reconfigured to accommodate a new, open space that inspires learning and maximizes the space. The auditoriums, where students and the school community gather to watch performances, are not alive.
Aging school buildings are in dire need of improvement. They should take advantage of any opportunity to do something imaginative to improve their school’s logistics and space with new tools and energy, as well as furniture that will enable students to move freely and work easily in independent and collaborative ways and through interactions with each other.
Improvements in school design and advances in school modernization over the past several decades have underscored the need to improve the physical conditions of schools so that students can interact and engage fully. Therefore, it is reasonable to want today’s students to spend their time in buildings that are functional and relevant in the twenty-first century. The school needs a peaceful setting for learning that takes the academic program to a high-performance level.
Perhaps nowhere else is transforming a physical learning environment more urgent than within aging school buildings.
Hilderbrand Pelzer III is an award-winning educator and the author of Unlocking Potential. He has received numerous awards and accolades for his work in education, including the Queen Smith Award for Commitment to Urban Education (2008) from the Council of the Great City Schools. His book examines public education from an angle that is under-represented in national debates, and covers topics such as educational disparities, illiteracy, teaching responsibility, instructional improvement, compassion for marginalized student, and the assumptions that have existed about the capacities and capabilities of schools for incarcerated youths.