Some days, school and university administrators must feel like the mythical Greek figure Sisyphus. To atone for his sins, Sisyphus was condemned to roll a large boulder to the top of a hill, and each time he is about to reach the top, the boulder rolls to the bottom.
School and university administrators toil and sweat to push their institutions to greater heights, but too often budget cuts and shrinking resources prevent them from holding onto the progress they've made. Each year, as administrators go through their budget processes and confront the same obstacles (rising construction costs, escalating fuel prices, reduced state aid, unfunded federal mandates, political meddling, a public skeptical of spending priorities), it may seem to them they are doomed like Sisyphus to tread the same uphill path over and over with little chance of ultimate success.
The difference is that, for education administrators, their fate is not preordained; they can overcome these obstacles and achieve high-quality schools. The boulder won't roll back down the hill if schools and universities stay vigilant to make sure they are using their resources wisely to provide the most effective learning environments.
As enrollment continues to climb at the K-12 and post-secondary levels, schools will need to operate more efficiently to serve growing numbers more effectively. Education institutions can enhance their effectiveness by embracing sustainable design strategies to provide more environmentally friendly campuses; by incorporating new technology to ensure that students have access to the best educational tools; by upgrading security so that their facilities are a safe haven for learning; and by using the most effective maintenance practices to ensure the learning spaces are clean, healthful and safe.
Schools and universities in 2007 are likely to continue to embrace the philosophy of sustainability as they design new facilities, remodel existing space and manage their campus operations.
Education funds are subject to year-to-year fluctuations, so budgets are likely to remain tight in most jurisdictions. Making choices that will ease school operations cost can relieve some of the budget pressure administrators face.
Sustainable design, sometimes called green design or high-performance design, uses techniques and materials that conserve energy and other resources and that limit the impact of the school building and its operation on the environment.
Conventional thinking has been that the additional cost of building a green facility discourages schools and universities from pursuing such projects. To address that concern, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), along with the American Federation of Teachers, the American Institute of Architects, the American Lung Association and the Federation of American Scientists, sponsored an October 2006 report, “Greening America's Schools,” by Capital E, a consultant on clean energy.
The study looked at 30 green schools and found that constructing a green educational facility costs about $3 more a square foot.
Based on an average national cost of school construction of $150 a square foot, that amounts to a 2 percent cost increase compared with a conventional construction project. The financial benefits of a green school easily make up that cost.
“Lower energy and water costs, improved teacher retention and lowered health costs save green schools directly about $12 per square foot,” the study says.
The benefits to the community at large are much greater, the report says, including less air and water pollution and a better-educated workforce.
“Building green schools is more fiscally prudent and lower-risk than continuing to build unhealthy, inefficient schools,” the report concluded.
Some of the schools and universities most committed to sustainable design and construction use the Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system to guide their projects and ensure that a facility is environmentally friendly and energy-efficient.
The U.S. Green Building Council, which developed the LEED rating system for building construction, is developing a related system specifically geared for school construction. The council cites three reasons for differentiating school projects:
- Children's health issues
“Because children breathe more air in proportion to their bodies than adults, environments for children must be carefully designed to minimize indoor pollutant exposure,” the council says.
- Education mission
“As learning environments, schools can demonstrate the importance of efficiency and conservation,” the council says. “LEED for Schools offers a way to integrate environmental issues into the curriculum, allowing the built environment to become an interactive teaching tool.”
- Complex programmatic spaces
“Schools combine many functions into a relatively small space,” the council says. “From classrooms to gymnasiums, cafeterias to machine shops, the job of school designers is particularly complex. LEED for Schools gives project teams guidance on the specific needs of unique space types.”
As 2007 begins, the good news about safety and security in schools is that crime in the nation's schools continues to decline.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics “Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2006,” reports of crime in school have plummeted from nearly 3.8 million in 1994 to about 1.45 million in 2004. A total of 322,400 serious violent crimes in schools were reported in 1994, compared with 107,400 serious violent crimes in 2004.
The bad news is that the positive long-term trends are no solace for the students, staff and community members affected when an individual campus is victimized by violence and tragedy.
That paradox was brought home last fall when in the span of a few days, fatal gunshots rang out at schools in Pennsylvania, Colorado and Wisconsin:
On Sept. 27, an armed man took six female students hostage at Platte Canyon High School in Bailey, Colo. When authorities moved to end the standoff, the gunman shot 16-year-old Emily Keyes to death before killing himself.
On Sept. 29, a 15-year-old freshman armed with a shotgun and a handgun entered Weston School in Cazenovia, Wis., and fatally shot the high school principal.
On Oct. 2, a gunman entered a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pa., and took female students hostage. Five girls were killed and five others were wounded before the gunman killed himself.
“While violent crime rates in our schools are about half the levels of the early 1990s, (the) recent series of tragic shootings have led us to re-examine and redouble our efforts,” says U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings.
In the coming year, it is inevitable that shootings, stabbings and other acts of violence will result in death and injuries at some schools.
Schools can't eliminate the possibility of violence, but they can work to create environments where such incidents are less likely and to minimize the harm that befalls a school community when an incident does occur.
Prevention programs can help identify students experiencing difficulty and get them help before their problems escalate. Altering the physical campus through better designs or security equipment can create a safer environment and deter criminals from targeting a school. Crisis plans created with the involvement of local governmental agencies can help a school respond quickly and appropriately to campus emergencies.
A conference on school safety convened last fall by President Bush after the spate of school shootings identified numerous strategies for preventing school violence.
An important step for schools is to have a way to gather information about what is happening with students. Many jurisdictions have established hotlines and have brought school resource officers onto campuses.
Schools also continue to rely on equipment, technology and campus design to help monitor their facilities and keep unwanted visitors away.
The greater affordability and quality of video surveillance and the ability of schools to use already established computer networking to run a surveillance system has led to many schools and universities installing or expanding video-surveillance systems to monitor their campuses and facilities.
Access-control systems, using cards or biometric technology, enable schools to keep track of who is entering facilities and to restrict access to certain sensitive areas.
Student enrollment in U.S. schools and universities will continue to rise in 2007 and throughout the next decade, the federal government projects. The growth is occurring rapidly in some areas, and not at all in other regions, but the education institutions with increasing numbers of students will have to find space to accommodate them.
In public elementary and secondary schools, student enrollment continues to rise, as it has since the mid-1980s. But the rate of growth has slowed in recent years.
From 1994 to 1999, public school enrollment rose by 6.2 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). From 1999 to 2004, the rate of growth slowed to 4.1 percent.
The NCES projects that enrollment from 2004 to 2009 will grow at an even slower pace — 1.5 percent. The pace is projected to pick up from 2009 to 2014, when the NCES predicts K-12 public school enrollment growth of 3 percent.
Enrollment in Nevada, led by the fast-growing Clark County School District, is projected to grow the most from 2004 to 2015 — 30.7 percent.
A Clark County district status report from October stated that it anticipates opening six new elementary schools and two new middle schools in 2007.
States projected to see enrollment climb by more than 10 percent from 2004 to 2015 are Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Texas.
Projections show that Texas is expected to gain more than 900,000 students from 2004 to 2015.
In Wake County, N.C., the district is expected to grow by 40,000 students between 2005 and 2010, bringing enrollment to more than 160,000 students. Voters have approved a $970 million bond issue to build more facilities; in addition, the district is adopting a year-round calendar at many schools to increase student capacity.
California is projected to have nearly 6.6 million students in public elementary and secondary schools in 2015. That's only about 158,000 more than its 2004 enrollment, but the slower growth of the coming years follows a period from 1994 to 2004 when it gained more than 1 million public school students.
The nation's largest state is still working to catch up with the facilities needs brought about by that growth. In November, voters approved a $10.4 billion bond proposal that will help pay for construction of new K-12 schools as well as repairs to existing schools. The money also will help upgrade facilities at the state's community colleges, and in the University of California and California State University systems.
For school administrators responsible for facilities, the national figures may hold some interest, but the numbers that affect their jobs are the enrollment numbers in their area, which may look nothing like the national trends.
Fifteen states and Washington, D.C., are projected to have fewer students in 2015 than they did in 2004. States in the Northeast dominate the list: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and Pennsylvania. Other states with long-term downward enrollment trends are Ohio, Michigan, West Virginia, North Dakota, New Mexico, Alabama and Wyoming.
Many urban districts are experiencing enrollment declines and are closing or consolidating schools to operate more efficiently. In the mid-1990s, the Milwaukee district saw its enrollment top 101,000. But this year, its numbers have fallen to around 89,600. At the end of the 2006-07 year, Milwaukee will close three schools; in 2006, the district closed four schools.
In Kansas City, Mo., the district is reviewing proposals that call for closing seven to 11 schools. The district's peak enrollment was 77,000 students in 1963; by 2005-06, only 25,129 students were attending district schools, according to a facilities study released last month.
“There is no hard evidence to suggest these trends will not continue, and enrollment projections … indicate that enrollment will likely drop below 22,000 over the next five to seven years,” the Kansas City facilities study states.
In Detroit, steadily dropping enrollment figures have led district administrators to propose closing 52 of the system's 232 schools in the next two years. Following a teachers' strike in fall 2006, the district's enrollment has fallen to about 116,800, a one-year drop of about 12,300 students. In 2001-02, the district had 159,768 students.
The enrollment projections from the NCES don't take into account the drastic enrollment drop that occurred in the New Orleans area because of the flooding that resulted from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The Orleans Parish district had nearly 65,000 students in fall 2004. As of December 2006, about 27,000 students were attending public schools in Orleans Parish — either at charter schools, schools run by the state of Louisiana's recovery district, or one of the few schools still managed by the Orleans Parish district.
At the post-secondary level, enrollment projections show steady growth in the number of U.S. college students. The percentage increases are greater than the growth in elementary and secondary enrollment, but like those figures, the rate of post-secondary enrollment growth is slower than it was in the first part of the decade.
According to NCES data, total enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions from 1994 to 1999 grew by 3.6 percent. From 1999 to 2004, enrollment growth swelled by 16.8 percent. Based on the NCES middle alternative projections, higher-education enrollment is expected to climb by 7 percent from 2004 to 2009 and by 6.5 percent from 2009 to 2014.
In 2007, the use of technology will become even more a way of life for the average student in a school or university.
The embrace of computers and the Internet has happened quickly. For the seniors who graduated last spring from high schools, classroom computers with Internet access were a rarity when they began first grade: only 3 percent of instructional rooms in public schools were equipped with Internet access. By 2005, when those students began their final year of high school, Internet access was nearly universal: 94 percent of public school instructional rooms had Internet connections.
Public schools in 2005 had one computer with Internet access for every 3.8 students, a more than threefold improvement from 1998, when the average public school had one Internet-connected computer for every 12.1 students.
Virtually 100 percent of public schools have some Internet access, and 97 percent of those schools have some broadband access. Forty-five percent of public schools had wireless Internet connections in 2005.
In higher education, technology has become integral to campus life. Many schools require students to have laptop computers and provide easy wireless access to the campus network and the Internet. Villanova University, cited by PC Magazine and the Princeton Review as the nation's “most wired” college, provides wireless laptops and appropriate software to all entering freshmen. Students register for classes, access the library, download lectures, take exams, submit papers and receive grades online.
More students are taking courses online or use technology to attend a “virtual high school.” The university system with the largest enrollment, the University of Phoenix, enables students to acquire their degrees exclusively through online courses.
To take maximum advantage of technology, instructors must have the knowledge and training to pass technological skills on to students.
The International Society for Technology in Education has developed 10 “essential conditions” that should be in place in school systems and in colleges of education to make sure that technology becomes an integral part of teaching and learning:
Shared vision: Proactive leadership and administrative support.
Access to current technologies, software and telecommunications networks.
Educators skilled in the use of technology for learning.
Consistent access to professional development in support of technology use in teaching and learning.
Technical assistance to maintain and use technology.
Content standards and curriculum resources: Educators knowledgeable in their subject matter and up-to-date in content standards and teaching methodologies.
Student-centered teaching in all settings.
Continual assessment of the effectiveness of technology.
Community support: Partners provide expertise and resources.
Policies, financing and rewards structures in place to support technology in learning.
The infusion of technology also can affect the building itself. School facilities must have the capacity to handle computers in the classroom — both the square footage and the available electrical power and connections to the school's computer network. The heat generated by computers and other new technology may require schools to re-evaluate the heating and air conditioning needs in their buildings.
Indoor Air Quality
A safe school is one where students and staff members are protected from crime and violence. But it also is one where the students and staff are not exposed to illnesses and diseases that may result from poor conditions in the facility itself.
As schools and universities cope with aging and deteriorating facilities, administrators will continue to address the problems that can arise from poor indoor environmental quality.
In some cases, even new facilities can have indoor air quality problems if construction flaws lead to leaking building envelopes and mold.
Education institutions forced to slash their budgets often turn first to maintenance and cleaning budgets for cuts. The result is that schools and universities fall further behind in their efforts to keep facilities well-maintained.
Problems that aren't corrected early on can lead to significant damage in a building and put students and staff at a significant health risk.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that 6.3 million children in the United States have asthma, and the incidence of the condition is rising most rapidly among preschool children. In 2000, some 14 million school days were missed because of the disease, the EPA says.
Environmental conditions found in many schools, such as mold growth or the presence of cockroaches and other pests, can trigger an asthma attack.
Districts that focus greater attention on indoor air quality have shown positive results. The Portland, Ore., school system developed an indoor air quality management information system with a standard procedure for responding to concerns.
The EPA says that from 2004-05 to 2005-06, the Portland district showed a 43 percent decrease in the number of indoor air quality complaints. The district received the EPA's Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools 2006 Excellence Award.
Still, many of the nation's schools have not been able to address their poor environmental conditions.
In a December 2006 report, “Building Minds, Minding Buildings,” the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) urges federal, state and local officials to focus renewed attention on improving the environmental quality of the nation's school facilities.
“If this nation is committed to high academic standards, we must stop ignoring the impact that the physical environment plays in students' health and learning,” the report asserts.
Yet, the report notes, too many school buildings around the nation are plagued by faulty ventilation systems that breed germs, leaky plumbing that creates moist conditions for mold to grow, deteriorating walls and ceiling tiles, and inadequately cleaned carpets that create health hazards for those who come into contact with them.
“Unhealthy and unsafe school conditions make it difficult for students to concentrate, for teachers to teach, and for staff to do their jobs,” the report says. “Such conditions also lead to lower student attendance and reduced teacher and staff retention, at a time when testing requirements make attendance more important than ever, and retaining good teachers is seen as a key ingredient in raising student achievement.”
To attain a facility with good indoor environmental quality, administrators should make sure a school is designed with adequate heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems, appropriate to the climate of the region.
The AFT report lists many recommendations that would help bring about more healthful school buildings:
More federal funding. “An appropriate level of federal assistance to help local communities build and modernize their schools will improve opportunities for more children,” the report says.
Require a “learning environment index” to be used as part of the No Child Left Behind Act. Such an index “would identify and measure teaching and learning conditions that are known to contribute to increased student achievement,” the AFT says. “Schools that fail to make (adequate yearly progress) would be required to show improvement on their learning environment index, and states and districts would be required to provide the resources to ensure that schools address the … conditions.”
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health should be given the power to examine hazardous exposures of children.
States should provide resources to their public health, environmental and education agencies to develop guidelines on operating and maintaining school facilities, as well as best practices for renovation and maintenance.
States should establish and enforce requirements for environmental and safety inspections of school buildings, for mold assessment and remediation practices, for school district policies on renovating facilities while classes are in session, and for integrated pest management programs.
States should pursue legislation or regulations that require environmental assessment of proposed school sites; that provide training for all school staff on operating and maintaining healthy schools; and that guarantee that portable or modular school facilities meet standards for environmental quality, acoustics and energy efficiency.
Local community members should become more involved in school district decisions to ensure that construction and renovation projects result in facilities that are conducive to teaching and learning.
As they have for years and probably will continue to do for as long as schools exist, maintenance professionals will be striving in the coming year to do more with less to keep their school facilities clean and safe. Education institutions have a long history of deferring critical facility maintenance when budgets get tight. Those who end up paying the price for those shortsighted decisions are many of today's students and teachers who must spend their days in dingy and deteriorating school buildings.
During the 1990s, the dismal state of U.S. schoolhouses led to a rallying cry to deal more seriously with deferred maintenance and place a higher priority on preventive maintenance. But in recent years, stagnant or shrinking budgets have sent maintenance back to the end of the line at budget time.
The most recent AS&U Maintenance & Operations Cost Study (April 2006) found that school districts in 2006 spent 7.58 percent of their budgets on maintenance. That was a slight increase from the year before, but the long-term trend shows districts spending less on maintenance. In 1997, districts were spending 9.59 percent on maintenance.
Some states and advocacy groups are making it harder for schools to hold on to their maintenance budgets. Efforts to require districts to spend 65 percent of their budgets on classroom instruction could force school systems to cut maintenance funds.
Depending on how “classroom spending” is defined, many districts aren't spending at that level, and administrators looking for places outside the classroom to cut are likely to turn first to the maintenance budget.
Many education groups have argued that the 65-percent campaign is misguided.
The PTA calls the 65-percent solution “fatally flawed,” and the American Federation of Teachers says it is “a simplistic and arbitrary gimmick that would actually harm schools and students.”
For maintenance directors trying to squeeze more productivity out of a tight budget, technology is a critical tool. Computerized maintenance-management systems enable institutions to take advantage of the technology available in most schools to manage work orders and track the status of jobs more quickly.
Computerized systems that use the Internet allow staff members to gain access and enter data from anywhere on a campus. Computer databases enable schools to keep more timely and accurate information about the condition of facilities and when they are due for periodic maintenance.
Another way that some schools have tried to run their maintenance operations more efficiently is to outsource the program to a private company. The AS&U M&O report found that 14.6 percent of school districts contract out maintenance and operations.
In higher education, privatizing maintenance services is more common. The M&O report for 2006 found that 27 percent of two-year colleges and 26 percent of four-year colleges privatized maintenance operations.
Where it is successful, privatization provides maintenance services more efficiently than an institution and saves money. However, privatization does not always provide better services. The Guilford County (N.C.) district brought in a private company to run its custodial operation in 2003, but terminated the contract after two years when the expected cost savings did not materialize.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees contends that privatization “leaves school districts vulnerable to a variety of problems, including higher costs, lower quality of services, and the loss of control and flexibility.”
As schools pay more attention to the health of students and staff and environmental safety in schools, the cleaning products they use will be scrutinized more closely.
In New York, legislation that became effective in September 2006 requires all elementary and secondary schools to use green cleaning products, which the state defines as ones “that minimize potential impacts to human health and the environment … without sacrificing product effectiveness.”
New York State's Office of General Services has developed a guide for environmentally sensitive cleaning and maintenance products. The entire 43-page guide is at http://www.ogs.state.ny.us/bldgadmin/environmental/GreenGuidelines.pdf.
Comments? E-mail Kennedy, staff writer, at [email protected].