Deferred maintenance and obsolete features plague U.S. schools

Published: Monday, March 25 2013 12:41 a.m. MDT

The State of our Schools report, released March 12, states that U.S. schools are facing a $271 billion deferred maintenance bill just to bring buildings up to working order. That's more than $5,000 per student. The report estimates that modernizing the schools could double that dollar amount.

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Everyone from the president of the United States to the PTA president down the street worries about what goes on inside school buildings. A new report from the U.S. Green Building Council suggests that some of that hand-wringing should be directed toward the buildings themselves.

The State of our Schools report, released March 12, states that U.S. schools are facing a $271 billion deferred maintenance bill just to bring buildings up to working order. That's more than $5,000 per student. The report estimates that modernizing the schools could double that dollar amount.

The report decries the fact that it has been 18 years since the last comprehensive government report on the condition of the nation's 100,000 public elementary and secondary schools. The most recent Government Accountability Office report, from 1995, showed that 15,000 U.S. schools were circulating air deemed unfit to breathe.

The School Design Matters blog states that many facilities common to the nation's schools, even the new ones, have features that are obsolete in today's changing world.

Grouping classrooms by subject makes it harder for students to learn across the curriculum, and goes against modern workplace principles encouraging collaboration between groups. Long, narrow hallways take up valuable school real estate. They can be eliminated by grouping classrooms around common spaces, according to School Design Matters.

Computer labs are obsolete advertisements of the fact that students are connected to the Internet everywhere except at school, according to the blog.

"A modern school needs to have connectivity everywhere and treat computers more like pencils (albeit valuable ones) than microscopes," it said.

The way buildings are designed strongly influences school culture, said an Education Week article. Research showing that school buildings affect student morale and achievement is prompting school officials to move toward more open, flexible buildings to foster a sense of community and collaboration, the story said.

"Such new designs tie together a shift to a more technology-driven, collaborative, student-centered approach to education with an effort to improve students' safety, engagement, and community," according to Education Week. "The goal is to get students feeling more invested in their school communities; improved student engagement is thought to be tied to fewer discipline problems."

In new schools, traditional cafeterias might be replaced with café-like spaces where students can work eat and socialize at the same time, the story said. Lockers are missing, reducing clutter and improving security. And new classrooms are less like teacher-focused lecture spaces, with breakout spaces for small-group collaboration.

Last December's shooting at Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary, in which a gunman killed 20 students and six teachers, heightened concerns about how school design supports safety and security. New school designs can incorporate open sight-lines, security systems and cameras, safe rooms, bullet-resistant window-glazing and lockdown features and panic buttons in each classroom, said a story in the Austin American-Stateman.

Architects say such measures make schools safer, but can't totally eliminate risk of violence, according to a story in the New Haven Register.

EMAIL: cbaker@deseretnews.com

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