October 2014 Leaderboard

Construction junction

It’s mid-August here in Northern Virginia. At my house, we’re starting to get ready for the new school year. This year, by odd coincidence, my sons—a fifth-grader and a high school junior—both will be attending schools under renovation.

Renovations to both buildings are long-awaited and badly needed. In the end, our community will get upgraded and improved facilities. Until then, however, there are classes held in trailers and other construction distractions: dust, noise, and disrupted routines and spaces.

Sending your children to schools under renovation requires trust that these immediate inconveniences will bring long-term benefits. After all, my boys are only going to get one fifth-grade and one junior year. They won’t get that time back, so the sacrifices had better be worthwhile.

As school board members, you know that you don’t have much room for error when it comes to facilities and construction in your district. The choices that you make will affect your students, teachers, and community for generations beyond your board service.

We’d like to help inform those decisions with this issue’s articles focused on facilities, design, and construction.

And the help doesn’t stop with this issue. We have a plethora of facilities and construction articles online at www.asbj.com/topicsarchive/facilitiesandschooldesign.

Send us your school construction success stories. We’ll run them in an upcoming issue, and they’ll encourage me during my own year of construction.

—Kathleen Vail, Editor-in-Chief,

Designing for student achievement

I have fond memories of my elementary school in Pennsylvania, a stately old red-brick building with creaky wood floors, voluminous echoing hallways, and massive windows with shades precisely drawn halfway—probably to convey an important message about order to students and passersby. It was torn down years ago and replaced with a post office. Still, every time I go by that site, I can’t help but recall a special place.

Many of our beloved school buildings now  require significant renovations or replacement. In fact, some estimate the cost of needed school construction as high as $500 billion—a staggering number. However, with these improvements to school facilities come some enormous opportunities for school boards. 

Instructional practices have changed dramatically over the years, and schools today need to accommodate those changes. Fortunately, we know much more than ever before about how school facilities can influence student achievement. In addition to the physical layout of a school, the amount of daylighting and the quality of the indoor environment, for instance, have been shown to impact student academic performance. So, even if school building design is just one variable in influencing learning, it is one over which school boards can and should exercise significant control.

This isn’t simply a matter of aesthetics. Research has linked schools’ physical environment to student and staff health and behavior. Certain design elements and environmental factors can affect everything from students’ vision and concentration to the number of days a teacher calls in sick. Consider, for instance:

•  The air students breathe at school can impact their ability to concentrate as well as their overall health. Schools may have a variety of pollutants, including chemicals from science labs or art rooms, chalk dust, mold, or other toxins. Green or sustainable design can improve air quality, and less energy usage also saves money and helps the environment.

•  Hearing does not fully develop until the teenage years, and loud or background noises can disrupt learning. One study showed that extreme noise lowered reading scores.

•  Research has found that students exposed to ultraviolet light show increased ability to work and resist fatigue, which ultimately improves academic achievement, health, and vision.

•  More than a decorating detail, colors are proven to stimulate senses and impact student achievement. For instance, warm, luminous colors can stimulate activity while softer, cooler colors enhance the ability to concentrate. Emerging research also shows how color and design can affect the behavior and learning of students with disabilities.

Educational facilities planning and construction is a multibillion-dollar industry. School boards should rely on experts in school design when considering a construction or renovation project. However, they have a responsibility to ask the right questions and to be certain that decisions made about their buildings will promote learning as well as student and school employee health. In other words, determining what a school will look like should be an informed choice, drawing on best practices and design research.

It’s also worth reminding ourselves that schools can be an enormous asset for a community—offering sites for adult education, public programs, and other events that bring people together. They provide venues for taxpayers to see firsthand the return on their investment in the school system.

At a time when funding is limited, good school design decisions can provide benefits that last a long time—and good memories, too. 

Thomas J. Gentzel (tgentzel@nsba.org) is the executive director of NSBA.

Board leadership helps struggling schools

It’s more critical than ever to show the good things that happen each day in your public schools. After all, we have much to celebrate, including the record high school graduation rates announced this summer.

Yet, we also must acknowledge that there are struggling schools. This impacts all of public education and it is an issue that school boards must address.

We want—and need—to tell our good news stories. But we won’t have credibility until all students are successful. This is going to be hard work: We have more students living in poverty, students with special needs, and every day more students whose first language is not English enter the system.

We must ensure each child not only graduates but also has the skills to be successful in college or their careers.

And we are well aware of what schools need to be successful. Research shows with no doubt that certain strategies greatly improve student achievement. These include high expectations by school boards that each child can be successful, effective principals and teachers, ongoing professional development, and a strong curriculum.

But these types of initiatives take money and resources. And for the vast majority of school districts, hard choices must be made.

This is where school board leadership matters. Your board’s priorities will guide the performance of your school district. Research shows that the policies and practices your board puts into place directly impact school climate and student learning. We can do this. In fact, we must do this. It is too important for the future of this great nation, and for our children.

It’s a heavy weight to carry. But NSBA and your state school board association can help provide guidance, research, and training to help you accomplish your goals.

Over the next few months, NSBA’s Agenda for Action committee will make recommendations for improving all our schools, but especially our struggling schools. NSBA also is building a reservoir of best practices for school boards to tap when facing particularly tough challenges.

The Center for Public Education has research on school board practices and other information that will help your board most effectively address student achievement.

We also must remain diligent about our very vocal opponents who want to turn over public schools to private interests or resegregate the schools based on wealth.

We must remain focused on seeking the best education for our students, for their sake as well as for the sake of our nation’s economy and national security.

And we must tell our stories.

If you haven’t already done so, please join NSBA’s Stand Up 4 Public Schools. Sign our pledge at www.standup4publicschools.org, share your story or ideas on Facebook with our more than 30,000 fans, and engage in in-depth conversations on www.mindmixer.com.

We look forward to hearing from you!

Anne M.Byrne (annebyrne@nsba.org) is NSBA's 2014-15 president and a member of New York's Nanuet School Board.