"Crumbling classrooms" lead to poor academic performance
By Rachel Potucek
Of all the world's economies and all the world's militaries, the United States is ranked No. 1. Why, then, are U.S. students ranked sixth internationally in academic achievement? Try this pop quiz (don't worry, it's just for extra credit).
A student's academic achievement is influenced by:
A - the student's
If you marked "D," congratulations. Since the 1930s, research has shown a link between a student's physical environment and his or her academic achievement, according to the Council of Educational Facility Planners, International.
If you marked the wrong answer, you're not alone. In fact, many people blame poor test scores on the teachers or students without knowing how run-down the school building has become.
America's school buildings need more than $286 billion for school infrastructure improvements, according to "Saving America's School Infrastructure," a 2003 book co-edited by Kansas State University educational administration professor David Thompson, pictured at left.
Smaller rural school districts in Kansas, for example, have various infrastructure woes, said K-State educational administration professor G. Kent Stewart, pictured below.
Infrastructure problems include any structural elements of the school building.
"Roofs, windows and doors, brick and stone work, electrical systems, outlets, quality of lighting, heating, ventilation and air conditioning, to start," said Stewart. "Most infrastructure problems stem from building age. Leroy and Gridley, two schools south of Topeka, were built in the 1920s."
As a building gets older, repairs become more expensive and more common. Plus, older schools need to provide services they were not designed to handle. Stewart said administrators must add ramps and elevators for the disabled and extra outlets for computers.
"Almost all school districts have some infrastructure problem unless districts are blessed with plenty of money to keep things in tip-top condition," said Stewart. Unfortunately, many small rural schools don't have "tip-top" budgets. Enrollment determines a school's state funding from year to year. Since the mid-1990s, population has dropped in all but eight of the 105 Kansas counties Stewart analyzed.
It would seem that higher enrollment would fix Kansas' school budget problems -- but encouraging parents to have more kids "is just a joke," said Stewart. Potential parents aren't getting any younger. Neither are the school buildings. How can a small school district fix its infrastructure?
"Hope," Stewart said. Some schools simply wait for enrollment to rise. Other schools use a more pro-active approach. Over the past 30 years, Stewart has worked with 130 school districts -- more than one third of Kansas -- to write reports on school buildings and work with citizens to find solutions.
"Ellwood and Wathena, two districts in the northeast corner of Kansas, share teachers and merged their athletic programs to fund one football team," Stewart said. Moreland, Hill City, Atwood and Herndon school districts have also consolidated. If sharing teachers or programs isn't feasible, Stewart said some districts can close smaller buildings.
Schools can try to raise taxes through bond issues. This typically unpopular option, however, is dependent on a community vote for passage.
David Darling, a community development economist for K-State's Research and Extension, said community attitudes can significantly affect a school's ability to raise taxes.
For instance, five years ago, Kingman's bond issue passed on a slim margin of victory. If Kingman had not hosted town meetings that encouraged positive attitudes toward the community, the bond probably would have failed, Darling said.
"It is interesting to see which schools pass bonds and which don't. Those are the school districts in trouble," Darling said. "It has to do with local politics, not national trends."