Today's Students Deserve a High-Performance School Building
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.
Is Your School’s Foundation Failing?
By Hilderbrand Pelzer III
Author of Unlocking Potential
I recently purchased some new home fixtures and fittings, such as lighting, faucets, curtains, carpets, an oven, etc. My intention in doing so was to update and make my home look and feel nice. As I went throughout the house, inside and outside, to see what fixtures and fittings I should get to improve my home’s appearance and comfort, I noticed some signs of foundation problems, such as exterior brick cracks and difficulty closing the front door. As a homeowner, I leaped into inspection mode and sought out other signs of foundation issues. We all know the foundation is the first piece of a home to be constructed, and it creates a base for the rest of a home's components.
Just having fixtures and fittings did not seem that important once I noticed foundation failures. What good is it having a home that is attractive and comfortable, but is falling down because the foundation is crumbling? As a result, I addressed these foundation issues immediately: repointing brick and other cement work, purchasing a new door and exterior doorframe, to name a few.
School leaders often want to make their school environments to be inviting in every way– and rightly so. They want their schools to appear supported, appreciated, and valued. School leaders do things like buy nice furniture, purchase computers and technology tools, hang posters, and situate textbooks so that they are visible to students and visitors. They create educational partnerships, take their students on nice field trips, and display student artwork and classroom displays. They even make certain that their school is clean, have positive messages communicated, and they create student community classrooms. These are just some examples of fixtures and fittings. But, is the school's foundation failing? A school's foundation and base for the rest of the school's components is the instructional core – teaching and learning.
I strongly encourage school leaders to inspect their schools' foundations on an ongoing basis. Most educational research supports that schools don't improve through fixtures and fittings; they improve through the complex and demanding work of teaching and learning. Students need learning environments that engage them in rigorous tasks and offer them significant opportunities to develop knowledge –not just surround them with fixtures and fittings. They need schools with a strong instructional foundation.
Needless to say, I addressed both cosmetic and structural issues at home. I had the fixtures and fittings installed and the foundation problems corrected immediately. School leaders should do the same with their schools. But first, leap into inspection mode and identify the signs of instructional foundation failures and correct them.
Please share your thoughts and comments.
Bio: Hilderbrand Pelzer III leveraged the power of education and leadership to transform a school inside a prison. He has a strong belief that all children deserve a quality education, even those in prison. He has more than twenty years of experience in the field of education, and has served as a teacher, assistant principal, and principal, as well as assistant regional superintendent. He has received numerous awards and accolades for his work in education. Hilderbrand is the author of Unlocking Potential. The book draws on his experience and his nationally acclaimed work inside the Philadelphia Prison System.
Are Childhood Disorders Burdening Urban Public Schools?
By Hilderbrand Pelzer III
Author of Unlocking Potential
According to Dr. Marco Ferrucci, founder of The Chiropractic Source, “The problem with kids with ADHD who don’t get help and treatment is that they have behavioral problems, impulse control issues, anger and rage, and start to do things that will get them in trouble with the law.” He also says, “These kids can’t control it; it’s their neurology. They don’t know what they are doing is wrong.”
ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, is one of the most common childhood disorders, and it can continue through adolescence and adulthood. According to research, symptoms include difficulty staying focused and paying attention, difficulty controlling behavior, and hyperactivity. While it may be normal for all children sometimes to be inattentive, hyperactive, or impulsive, in children with ADHD, these behaviors are more severe and occur more often.
As an educator, I hold the belief that all children can learn and every child deserves a quality education. However, as my educational career evolves and my knowledge of ADHD sharpens, I am beginning to see serious problems for schools. In particular, these problems are rife in urban schools that consistently underperform, have high percentages of suspensions and violent incidents, and spend the majority of the school day trying to manage student behaviors rather than managing the elements of teaching and learning. I don’t want to believe students with ADHD cause problems for the schools, but Dr. Ferrucci’s claim really resonates with me.
With respect to ADHD, I see more and more urban schools with a high number of students diagnosed (or undiagnosed) with ADHD and other behavioral health disorders facing some serious challenges:
As more and more students with ADHD or other behavioral health disorders enroll in schools, the focus on teaching and learning declines significantly. The students’ behavioral health disorders start taking over, and teaching and learning take a back seat. At a time when all schools need to focus on each student’s academic development, the needs of the students with ADHD displace the academic and educational mission of the schools. This is not to give the impression that students with ADHD cannot achieve academically or excel in school. They can! However, students with ADHD have a definite effect on the type of learning environments schools produce and how teachers and administrators utilize and manage school resources, including time, space, people, curriculum, and budget.
Data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics 2010, show:
As if this were not bad enough, thousands of students with ADHD are missing opportunities to learn and achieve at high levels. Many of these students drop out of school because they have either easily grown to be disinterested with school, or their schools have become increasingly tired of the burden of servicing them. In these austere economic times, school districts are making critical decisions about what to pay for and how to utilize meager resources. In many instances, students with ADHD and other behavioral health disorders are overtaking the core mission of public schools and draining them of limited resources.
In my work with inmate learners and schools inside of jails, I have found strong evidence of increasing numbers of incarcerated school-age youths with ADHD, learning disabilities, or regular prescription medication required to manage their behavioral disorders. They either did not get the treatment they needed before getting in trouble with the law, or they could not learn to manage their disorders despite the behavioral health services they received.
Perhaps ironically, because of the rising tide of students being diagnosed with ADHD and other behavioral health disorders, behavioral health organizations and agencies that have behavioral health as their core mission will invest in more resources. Public schools in urban areas cannot continue to lead this work or shift their focus on academics and education to the problem that is students with ADHD or behavioral health disorders. As Dr. Ferrucci effectively put it, these students require treatment. Public schools are not treatment facilities. These students have behavioral health problems. They have impulse control issues. They demonstrate anger and rage. They start to do things that will get them in trouble with the law.
What do you think? Do you think students diagnosed with ADHD and other behavioral health disorders burden schools with behavioral problems? Do they play an integral part in the poor performance of many schools in urban areas? Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.
Dealing with the Chronic Ailments in Urban Public Schools
By Hilderbrand Pelzer III
Author of Unlocking Potential
Recently, I wrote a blog article ("Changing the Perception of Urban Public Schools" - coverage found at www.hp3-unlockingpotential.com/blog.html) depicting the way the media colors people’s negative perceptions of struggling urban public schools by focusing on writing stories about their ills. The article was well-received by readers all around the world. The article was intended to turn the conversation away from crime and violence in schools, and instead toward a focus that will generate academic development among struggling schools.
The civil rights data the U.S. Department of Education recently released has freed the elephants from the room, and now allows the media and public to focus on real issues that have been hidden from conversational view for a very long time: Discipline, Curricula, and Teacher Quality. Deal with discipline, curricula, and teacher quality (and funding formulas and resources management – but I will save these issues for another day!), and you have cured what is really ailing struggling urban public schools.
Among the U.S. Department of Education’s key findings are:
· Black boys are far more likely to be suspended or expelled from school than their peers.
· Non-white students are not offered courses such as Calculus, Physics, or Advanced Placement.
· Teacher quality in schools that enroll mostly black and Hispanic students is characteristically deprived.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the findings are a “wake-up call.” He added, “The power of data is not only in numbers themselves, but the impact it can have when married with the courage and the will to change . . .”
Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Russlynn Ali said, “These new data categories are a powerful tool to aid schools and districts in crafting policy, and can unleash the power of research to advance reform in schools.”
But, wait! Haven’t past U.S. Secretaries of Education and high-level government officials said something similar before? Yet, we still tinker around the edges when it comes to addressing education reform in urban areas.
I am encouraging the media to stop focusing on crime, violence, and other negative realities in urban public schools that keep the status quo churning. The public is well aware that crime and violence can occur inside of schools, just like they occur at university campuses, airports, U.S. Post Offices, and other public places. The findings of the U.S. Department of Education provide three alternative universal concentrations for all those concerned with struggling urban public schools that, if tackled, will generate academic growth among struggling urban public schools. The three areas of focus are Discipline, Curricula, and Teacher Quality.
It is common practice for many urban school districts across the nation to set up disciplinary schools in order to have an “educational setting” where they can dump their student code of conduct violators. Once dumped, the students linger without any real educational experience in schools that do not offer academic learning, a scholarly learning environment, or any academic functions or instructional coherence. The concept of “discipline” is all wrong in many urban school districts. The terms discipline, discipline schools, disciplinary process, or disciplinary students are buzzwords for “the end of the road is near.” Even more compelling is the fact that “discipline” is handed out mostly to black and Latino boys and girls, of all ages.
Curriculum and instruction is the heart of a school. If you cut out the school’s heart, then the school will die! The promise of public schools was to foster students’ development and ensure their academic development. Today, this promise is nearly obsolete in so many urban public schools, based on the large numbers of high school dropouts and undereducated youth facing doubtful futures. Many students reach high school, and even the twelfth grade, without competency in the basic subject areas: reading, writing, and math. As a result, struggling urban public schools focus their curriculum and instruction plan and meager resources on remediation programs, credit recovery for over-aged/under-credited students, and summer school for large groups of students who have failed courses during the ten-month school year. These practices make it a herculean task for students to ever complete Physics, Calculus, Advanced Placement, and other college preparation courses.
Low teacher quality plays a major role in creating educational gaps between student groups. Teachers’ low expectations often undermine the educational and academic progress of the very students they are responsible for educating. Components of teacher quality include planning meaningful lessons, delivering instruction, working to encourage improvements in individual student performance, and monitoring academic progress. Teacher commitment—the will to educate all students, regardless of ethnicity, social status, parental support, and poverty—must emanate from within each individual teacher. The key is the desire to deliver instruction to other people’s children with the same veracity, intensity, and desire for success that one would offer one’s own children.
So, stop digging dumping grounds in which to bury disciplinary problems. Instead, focus on resuscitating curriculum and instruction in schools. Recruit and retain high quality teachers and educational leaders. Sensational headlines color people’s perception of urban public schools and damage their confidence in the schools’ capacities and capabilities to perform for students. Urban public schools can perform!
What do you think? I am sure there are other opinions out there. Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.
Welcome to my blog, a collection of articles and commentary about urban education and correctional education. Feel free to comment, send me an email, or share my articles with others on your Twitter or Facebook pages.