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Growing recognition that a school's social and disciplinary atmosphere has profound impact on student achievement has prompted shifts in federal education policy.

Everyone from the president of the United States to the PTA president down the street worries about what goes on inside America's school buildings. Two new reports suggest that some of that hand-wringing should be directed toward the buildings themselves.

U.S. schools are facing a $271 billion deferred maintenance bill just to bring buildings up to working order, said a U.S. Green Building Council report released this month. That's more than $5,000 per student. Modernizing outdated schools could double that dollar amount, the report said.

Schools got a big, fat D on the 2013 Report Card for America's Infrastructure, a report issued every four years by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). The report gave infrastructure — transportation, water systems, bridges and dams, waste disposal facilities and schools — in the United States an overall grade of D+. Schools didn't do even that well.

Public school enrollment is projected to increase through 2019, but state and local school construction funding continues to drop, the ASCE report said. Spending on U.S. school construction declined to about $10 billion in 2012 — about half the level spent prior to the recession. Meanwhile, the condition of school facilities continues to be a significant concern for communities.

Both reports decried the absence of recent national data on school facilities, noting that last time the federal government did a comprehensive study on the condition of the nation's public school facilities was 18 years ago, in 1995.

Decisions about building and maintaining public schools rest with local districts, although state and federal money enters those equations to varying degrees, said Gordon Beck, director of school facilities and organization for Washington's state school system.

"The simple reality of it is that local taxpayers will bear the burden by passing bond issues," said Beck, who helped write a federal resource guide for school facilities management. (When voters approve a bond issue to finance a school project, a district sells bonds to cover the cost, then pays back the bond with tax dollars.)

The building boost

The reasons for ensuring that school buildings are up-to-date and in good repair are many. Research shows that school buildings can affect student learning, for instance. A 2013 study in "Building and Environment," an English research journal, found that good classroom conditions could increase learning rates by as much as 25 percent.

Factors considered in the study included quality and quantity of natural light, noise, temperature, air quality, crowding, layout and the school's ability to provide varied learning environments.

Modernized buildings save money on energy costs, too. The school district in Loudon County, Va., saved more than $28 million over the past five years by constructing new buildings more sustainably and updating inefficient systems at older schools, according to Education Week, a national newspaper focused on K-12 learning.

And building a new school or updating an old one presents an opportunity to create a school built for 21st-century students — technology-enabled and adapted to collaborative learning.

21st-century learning

"The whole idea when I went to school was that kids should keep quiet, sit up straight and pay attention. They got it all wrong," said Philip J. Poinelli, a certified educational facilities planner living in Cambridge, Mass.

Brain research shows that traditional classrooms designed for stand-and-deliver instruction aren't the best learning environments, Poinelli said.

Modern classrooms support hands-on activities that cross subject areas and mimic workplaces. In them, students can work together in small groups, with teachers guiding from the side instead of lecturing from the front, he said.

"Students are more engaged; they are happier to be there," he said. "Absenteeism has gone down because of it, and students are more inclined to stay in school rather than drop out."

A study from the Center for Social and Emotional Education supports Poinelli's sentiment. A school building's condition is a factor of overall school climate, which correlates with student absenteeism and self-esteem, and with academic achievement, the study said.

The Four Cs

Instead of talking about the time-honored Three "Rs" of education (reading, writing and arithmetic), Poinelli speaks of Four Cs: communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking. Buildings can support or suppress each "C," depending on their features, he said.

In a well-designed building, the entire school can be a learning environment. Activities might take place in corridors, which are widened to accommodate that. Cafeterias meld into common spaces where students can eat, socialize and learn throughout the school day.

Classrooms are flexible spaces, wired for instruction from all four walls and equipped with lightweight furniture that can be quickly arranged for group collaboration. They incorporate digital whiteboards connected to teachers' computers, and can support digital devices for each student that interface wirelessly with the teacher's computer.

Libraries have fewer reference books and more computers, and they include glass-walled group study rooms that keep students within librarians' sightlines. Transparency is a feature of common spaces and hallways too, bathing schools with natural light and making it easier for teachers, administrators and emergency responders to see what's happening.

Renovate or rebuild?

There is no single formula for deciding whether a decades-old school should be renovated or razed, said Beck, who oversees school facilities in the state of Washington. Consultants weigh in, evaluations are done, and local leaders compare costs and decide.

Many features of modern schools can be retrofitted into existing schools, Poinelli said. Classrooms can be wired for wireless Internet, outfitted with digital whiteboards and adapted to support computers for each student connected to a teacher computer. School security is a special case, however — even in new schools, and especially in old ones.

Last December's shooting at Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary, in which a gunman killed 20 students and six teachers, increased focus on how school design supports safety and security.

In March, Poinelli led a national discussion about designing safer schools for the American Institute of Architects. Much can be done to make schools safe and secure, he said, especially when new buildings are built — but there are limitations. Alarm systems, security cameras, communication systems and lockdown devices can be added to existing schools. Securing entrances is more difficult.

"If someone with mal intent wants to get into a school and cause harm, there is not very much we can do to stop that from happening," he said. "Even if you have a solid, locked door, someone with a high-powered rifle can shoot out the lock and the hinges. A solid door isn't necessarily any more safe than glass if you have the right firepower to cause that kind of damage."

The need to provide safe, modern schools is pressing, and the Sandy Hook tragedy has sharpened concerns, Beck said.

"At the same time, in the daily grind, schools have got the demands of trying to pay for utilities and the diverse amount of employees it takes to deliver education programs," he said. "It's a pretty demanding fiscal responsibility."

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