Top 10: Staying the Course

Top 10: Staying the Course

10 issues that education institutions should focus on to keep functioning efficiently.

Schools and universities have to confront countless problems that threaten to divert them from their primary function: educating children. Insufficient funding, subpar facilities, lack of community support, dissatisfied employees and dysfunctional board members are just some of the obstacles that can prevent an education institution from achieving its goal.

Those responsible for overseeing the nation's millions of classrooms know they can't eliminate all the woes — expected and unexpected — that are likely to befall schools and universities as they begin another calendar year.

But school officials should be aware of the more prominent issues that probably will arise as they make decisions in the coming year. Here are 10 issues that educators and administrators should be prepared to deal with as they try to keep their institutions on the right track.

1. Budgets & funding.

No matter what the year or the political climate or the state of the nation's finances, education institutions constantly have to worry about having adequate funding to provide students with a high-quality education that will prepare them for a place in the workforce.

The concerns over budget have been especially difficult since the economic collapse in 2008. Most schools and universities have had to get by with less financial support, as state legislatures cut back on funding or diverted money away from education.

Education institutions have reduced staffing, increased class sizes, consolidated operations, eliminated programs, and raised tuition and fees in an effort to make ends meet while still devoting sufficient resources to instruction.

No one can say what economic conditions will be in the future, but in at least some areas, signs have emerged that the financial climate is improving.

In California, voters' approval of a tax increase referendum will bring in billions of dollars in new revenue; without the infusion of funds, school districts and universities would have had to make painful cuts on top of budget rollbacks in previous years.

2. Construction and renovation.

Nearly every education institution has facilities that need improvement. A building may be too old to serve the needs of students or have flaws that cause it to age poorly or cause health concerns for students and staff. It may have been designed in response to educational trends that now are passe. It may still function well for its size, but is no longer able to accommodate a student enrollment that is increasing. Or a building still may be viable, but population changes in the surrounding neighborhood may mean a school no longer is needed.

When schools and universities don't have sufficient funding to address their space needs, they must establish priorities so that the most urgent needs are dealt with first.

The most common way for K-12 systems to acquire funding for capital improvements is through bond elections. By November 2012, economic conditions in some areas had improved enough that many districts were able to persuade voters to approve billions of dollars in construction and renovation projects.

Three districts passed successful bond proposals of more than $1 billion last month — $2.8 billion in San Diego, $1.9 billion in Houston and $1.2 billion in Miami-Dade County.

3. Safety and security.

Tens of millions of students attend schools and universities, so administrators must be vigilant about creating safe learning environments. Schools need to take steps to keep unwanted intruders off their campuses and to prevent violence among students.

The 2011 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 20.1 percent of students in grades 9 to 12 had been bullied on school property in the previous 12 months. The survey also found that 5.9 percent of high school students had not gone to school for at least one day in the previous month because they felt they would be unsafe at school or getting to and from school.

Many states and school districts have intensified their anti-bullying efforts. The federal government has established the stopbullying.gov website to provide educators, students, parents and others in the community with strategies for preventing and combating bullying.

Education institutions also must take steps to keep their schools safe from fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes and other catastrophes. Administrators must make sure they have updated crisis plans for their campuses so they can respond quickly and appropriately if a threat arises.

4. Education technology.

Computers have become a routine part of school life for most students and teachers, but the improvements in technology in the last couple of years have the potential to bring about major changes in classroom instruction.

The proliferation of powerful portable devices has made it possible for educators to envision a goal of every student having his or her own computing device connected to the Internet. Tablet computers, such as the iPad, Nook, Kindle and Nexus, as well as various models of smartphones, are able to provide students with wireless connections to mass quantities of online information.

Because many students already have such devices, schools may establish "bring your own technology" (BYOT) policies that enable schools to reach the goal of one-on-one computing without having to buy a device for every student.

When all students have ubiquitous online access, schools can adopt digital textbooks and supplement them with other online curricular materials that enhance a student's education. Teachers may alter the way they present lessons. Some have experimented with a "flipped classroom." Instead of having a teacher provide information in class and have the lesson reinforced through homework, instructors in a flipped classroom assign online material such as a video lecture that students view ahead of time outside the classroom, and class time can be used for answering questions and addressing issues students raise.

5. Online education.

The capacity for technology to disseminate copious amounts of information quickly and widely has the potential to remove many of the obstacles that prevent education institutions from connecting with prospective students. Online education enables schools and universities to provide learning opportunities and resources to those far beyond the boundaries of their campuses.

In higher education, many universities have begun to offer versions of some of their courses online to anyone for no charge. The movement has spawned another education acronym — MOOC, for massive open online course. The schools typically do not offer course credit for a MOOC, but some schools provide a certificate to show that a student has completed the coursework successfully.

Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology founded edX to offer free courses, and the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Texas system have become part of that venture. Coursera has 33 universities participating in its MOOCs, including Princeton, Duke and Ohio State. It boasts that more than two million "Courserians" who have taken its courses.

6. School Closings.

When education institutions can't increase revenue to support their budgets, they must find ways to use their resources more efficiently. For some school districts, especially large urban systems with declining enrollment and aging infrastructure, that means making painful and unpopular decisions to close underutilized facilities.

In Chicago, the nation's third-largest district, officials are expected to decide by March 31, 2013, which of its 680 schools will be closed. The district says unused classroom amounts to 100,000 seats, and 100 schools or more may end up targeted for closing.

The Washington, D.C., school system, which says 64 percent of its campuses have less than 350 students, has proposed closing 20 underutilized campuses

The Baltimore city school system has proposed a facilities upgrade plan that calls for vacating 26 school buildings over 10 years. The plan says that the district has capacity for 121,302 students, but has only 78,511 students.

But crunching the numbers is easier than telling communities that their beloved school will be taken from them. So school district administrators have to make sure their closing decisions are prudent and defensible.

"The decision to close a school must be based upon hard, empirical evidence that leads to a broadly supported, incontrovertible conclusion-the district cannot afford to keep a particular school(s) open without cuts elsewhere," says the California Department of Education's "Closing a School Best Practices Guide."

Before deciding which facilities to close, district officials should weigh numerous factors, the guide urges: enrollment trends, facility condition, capacity, whether a facility houses special programs, environmental factors affecting a facility, how a closing will affect the surrounding neighborhood and the ethnic balance of district enrollment, whether a closing will affect district transportation costs, and the potential resale value of a school building or its site.

7. Sustainability.

Another avenue for operating schools more efficiently is adopting sustainable practices for designing and maintaining education facilities. Green design and construction is beneficial to the environment, and it saves schools money over the long run in energy and water costs.

Education institutions can pursue recognition for green building design and construction through the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED certification, the Collaborative for High Performance Schools rating system, or the Green Building Institute's Green Globes rating system. The American College and University President's Climate Commitment is an effort among higher-education leaders to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions on college campuses and operate with less impact on the environment.

Even if schools and universities do not want to submit their projects for evaluation, those organizations have plentiful resources to help school facility managers build and maintain healthful learning environments, and use energy and more efficiently.

Once a sustainable school building opens to students and parents, the custodial staff can help uphold the facility's environmentally friendly status by incorporating green-cleaning products and strategies into its regular upkeep of schools.

8. Charter schools.

States and school districts are under pressure to improve student performance, and the Obama administration and other advocates believe having more charter schools is one path to better schools.

Charter schools are public institutions allowed to operate independently of school districts and have more leeway to try innovative education approaches to improve student performance. Opponents of the charter movement contend that the schools drain resources from traditional public schools and have an unconvincing record of educational success.

But for now, the argument seems to be tilting in favor of charters.

When the $4.35 billion "Race to the Top" school reform competition began in 2009, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said, "States that do not have public charter laws or put artificial caps on the growth of charter schools will jeopardize their applications under the Race to the Top Fund."

Since that time, the growth of charter schools, which began in Minnesota in 1992, has escalated. About 1.4 million students — 2.9 percent of public school enrollment — were enrolled in charters in 2008-09, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools reported. In 2012, the Alliance says, charter enrollment has topped 2 million — about 5 percent of public school enrollment.

Last month, Washington state became the 42nd state to allow creation of charter schools, when voters approved a referendum to allow up to 40 such schools in the next five years.

9. Effective maintenance.

It has become a truism that in a school system, funding for maintenance is routinely raided or starved when other areas of an education institution's budget comes up short.

It's difficult to win an argument to spend money on keeping a facility clean or well-maintained when a school is laying off teachers or doesn't have enough books for all its students. A focus on preventive maintenance will enable schools to be more cost-effective in allocating its maintenance budget. Making emergency repairs after equipment breaks down typically is more expensive and disruptive than carrying out preventive maintenance on a regular schedule.

A computerized maintenance-management system is an effective way for a school facility to establish a schedule of preventive maintenance. The systems enable maintenance workers to keep track of when and where work has been done and which jobs should have priority based on need.

10. Nutrition.

The nation's public school system is responsible for providing children with an education, but in recent years, administrators have had to pay more attention to something else they are providing children: the meals they are serving in school cafeterias.

Schools have become a key battleground in the fight against childhood obesity. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that obesity among children has more than tripled in the last 30 years — in 2008, more than one-third of children and adolescents in the United States were overweight and obese.

Improving the nutritional quality of the meals that are served every day to millions of students could help students develop more healthful eating habits, which would bring about short- and long-term health benefits.

"Schools play a particularly critical role by establishing a safe and supportive environment with policies and practices that support healthy behaviors," the CDC says.

Schools also provide opportunities for students to learn about and practice healthy eating and physical activity behaviors.

New federal standards for the national school lunch program call for improvements in the nutritional content of the meals students eat. Students must be offered both fruits and vegetables every day of the week; schools must substantially increase offerings of whole grain-rich foods and low-fat milk or fat-free milk varieties; and school menus must focus on reducing the amounts of saturated fat, trans fats and sodium.

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].

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