The Urban Challenge

July 1, 2000
Urban districts are facing challenges in their schools.

The myriad issues faced by the nation's cities are overflowing into their schools. Poverty, crime, lack of support, and an outdated and deteriorating infrastructure are among the dilemmas urban schools share with their host cities.

However, the additional resources required to effectively combat a city's specialized concerns often are lacking in urban schools-forcing individual districts to address challenges in their own unique ways.

Anatomy of an urban school

More than 11 million of the 46 million children enrolled in America's public schools-about 24 percent-attend school in an urban district. Approximately 575 of the country's school districts are considered to be predominantly urban.

Among the characteristics shared by urban schools include large class sizes, social and disciplinary problems, a large percentage of poor and minority children, and little involvement from parents compared to their suburban counterparts.

One of the most challenging issues plaguing urban schools is a rapidly deteriorating and aging education infrastructure. Although the poor condition of school buildings is not unique to urban districts, the magnitude and severity of the problem typically is. It is estimated that urban districts need about $50 billion just to repair their crumbling school facilities.

For example, the newest school in Waterloo Community School District, Iowa, is more than 30 years old. A recent attempt by the 11,000-student urban district to pass a $49.8 million bond issue for school construction and repair-its first since the 1960s-failed earlier this year. Waterloo did, however, pass a major maintenance levy two years ago, providing much-needed funding for school-building upkeep. It was the district's first show of support for school infrastructure in decades.

"We're making inroads," says Arlis Swartzendruber, superintendent of Waterloo. "The difference in an urban-school setting is a lack of having education as a high priority [in the community], even for their own children-there are so many other concerns in their lives. My previous experience in a suburban setting was far different because education was already at a high-priority level and had a lot of [parental] involvement."

The district does plan to revise and revisit the issue of school construction and repair in the near future.

A common problem

Many of the facilities problems plaguing urban schools are a reflection of their surrounding neighborhoods. Urban schools typically are associated with low test scores, high dropout rates, and higher absenteeism or tardiness when compared to suburban districts. The most alarming fact is that many city children attend schools that are in such horrendous condition that their physical safety routinely is threatened.

About one-quarter of the nation's 80,000-plus school buildings are located in central cities. More than half of the students in city schools are members of a minority group, compared with 28 percent and 18 percent, respectively, of students in suburban districts and rural schools. More than two-thirds of city schools (educating about 10 million students) report at least one major building feature needing repair or replacement compared with the overall average of 59 percent.

A recent U.S. Department of Education study on school spending reported that in central cities-where greater numbers of students live in poverty and it costs more to educate them than non-poor students-schools must spend a greater portion of limited funds on instruction and less on repairing buildings or buying/repairing equipment, which has led to often-dangerous infrastructure conditions.

Another government study reports that urban school districts spend on average about 3.5 percent of their budget on facilities maintenance (compared to a national average expenditure of 9.4 percent). Of this amount, 85 percent is for emergency repairs. The remaining small amount typically is spent on preventive maintenance, forcing urban schools to continually defer maintenance, and deal with escalated costs to operate and maintain buildings.

Attention to urban schools is escalating, though. At the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in May, mayors of the nation's cities came together with education leaders and President Clinton to focus on strategies to strengthen public schools in America's cities. Among the initiatives to bolster local, state and federal partnerships include the creation of Education Opportunity Zones that would provide grants to implement cutting-edge reforms. Currently, the initiative is stalled in both the House and Senate.

Facilities in demand

One aspect that has posed special challenges to urban school districts, in particular, is the increased use of facilities by the community. Often, schools are required to provide services unique to, yet lacking in, cities, and buildings are expected to operate on virtually year-round schedules.

"Year-round use of schools is a key issue facing us," says Richard W. Moore, P.E., director of facilities and maintenance services, Milwaukee Public Schools. "This summer we will have 30,000 students attending summer school, which is the largest amount we've ever had. Add to that such things as the addition of wrap-around programs, and before- and after-school daycare programs, and it takes its toll on facilities. This expanded use of buildings also causes problems with cleaning."

Typically, districts like Milwaukee would use nights, weekends and summer breaks to do major maintenance and upkeep work. However, more and more buildings are being used during these times, posing significant problems with scheduling and completion of maintenance.

Adult education, recreation, summer-school programs and other uses are creating facilities and maintenance challenges at Fairfax County Public Schools, Va.

"Approximately 75,000 individuals have registered for adult-education classes this year that will be conducted in district classrooms," says Roger W. Webb, assistant superintendent of facilities services for the 149,000-student district. Being a county system, the district is not considered urban per se. However, Fairfax has grown in such a way that it is beginning to deal with emerging urban areas and many of the same issues facing urban schools.

In Minnesota, the city of Minneapolis' schools also are finding it more challenging to upkeep buildings because of the increased use of facilities.

"With school programs expanding, our buildings are being used evenings, weekends and in the summer," says Donald Haydon, executive director of finance and operations management, Minneapolis Public Schools. "We will have 15,000 students attending summer school this year."

Minneapolis, though, has made a concerted effort to not let expanded building usage deter it from making timely facilities repair and renovation. The district currently is in the final year of a four-year program that has resulted in $150 million being spent on making buildings accessible, correcting identified fire- and life-safety deficiencies, installing sprinklers in every building, eliminating environmental hazards, as well as addressing critical deferred maintenance such as window replacements, roof repairs, utility upgrades, etc.

According to Haydon, the district currently is seeking authorization to implement a second phase to its facilities program. The four-year, $120 million plan will focus on addressing deferred maintenance and indoor air quality, furthering the district's desire to provide environments that are conducive to learning and that support achievement, not hinder it.

Search for sites

A common thread connecting most urban schools is limited site availability, which creates major problems when new schools, expansions or additional programs are required.

"Often when you are identifying land in a very urban, dense environment, you either are in a position where you have no choice but to acquire land that was once a heavy manufacturing area or that may have homes on it," says Erik Nasarenko, facilities division, Los Angeles Unified School District. "That often requires us to resort to eminent domain in order to take the homes to build schools on the site, or it requires extensive remediation in order to make the site safe for students and staff occupying the school."

"When we build schools, we must buy houses and relocate people," says Minneapolis' Haydon, whose district is growing by 1,000 students per year. "Currently, we are building four new schools. In planning, we try to identify general areas, and start dealing with neighborhood organizations to ask them for ideas in locating the schools. The site-selection process becomes a very participatory process; different neighborhoods have different needs.

"Planning itself often is complex in a city area," continues Haydon. "City planners may have a grand scheme for an area, and transportation routes and the extra traffic that will be created must be considered. In addition, the trade-off between houses vs. green space is a concern. One thing we have found is that often a neighborhood will identify a site for a new school that currently is occupied by boarded houses or is a high crime area, which raises additional security issues."

The enrollment boom experienced by most school districts has its own implications for burgeoning urban areas and available land for construction.

"One of our biggest challenges is the continued growth of student membership," says Fairfax County's Webb, whose district is growing by 2,500 to 3,000 students per year. "Add to this reduced-ratio programs and the growing diversity of the student population in terms of minority and other-language [non-English-speaking] students, and you have major facilities implications as a result of the programs required to serve students.

"We have an aggressive renewal and renovation program in Fairfax County. We have a remarkably good record of having bond referendums every two to three years and, for the last 20 years, they have all been successful. In 1995, we passed a referendum for $204 million. In 1997, a $233 million referendum was passed by 72 percent of voters. We attribute our success to our capital-improvement planning process and making the public aware of facility needs."

As the nation's second largest school system, Los Angeles Unified's staggering growth coupled with a statewide class-size-reduction program is having significant implications for facilities.

"The enrollment boom is a significant factor-we are expecting 80,000 new students over the next decade," says Los Angeles Unified's Nasarenko. "This poses a lot of tough choices, among them, reconfiguring school calendars as well as attendance boundaries, two issues that are very sensitive politically."

In 1996, Los Angeles voters approved the largest-ever bond issue for school construction in a single district-$2.4 billion. The district has been quick to put the money to work, completing 1,273 repair projects to date out of about 12,000 identified.

"Proposition BB has been an enormous benefit [to the district] that will help us build new schools, repair buildings and identify new sites for campuses," says Nasarenko. "When you perform a project of this size and caliber, phasing and scheduling is tremendously important, and that is something we've really tried to focus on."

Chicago Public Schools is in the middle of an ambitious $2.3 billion, three-phase capital-improvement plan to renovate and rebuild the city's deteriorating education infrastructure. With more than 50 percent of its almost 600 school buildings more than 50 years old-and only 63 built after 1973-the 430,000-student district under Phase I of its program has completed or is in the process of completing renovation of nearly half of its schools. The district's capital-improvement plan is organized into four programs: renovation of buildings, operating efficiencies, new construction, and educational enhancements such as new playgrounds.

However, even when urban districts do get the money to build and repair schools, it does not mean improvements will be implemented and made-at least not in a timely fashion. Take Detroit Public Schools, for example. The district passed what was a record $1.5 billion bond issue for school construction 31/2 years ago, and is just now beginning to get projects underway.

Under the microscope

Poor-performing urban districts, more than suburban and rural schools, often are targeted for takeover by their respective states, as documented in some recent cases:

*Newark, N.J., joined Jersey City and Paterson school districts as a state-takeover candidate in 1995. Reports going back more than a decade found waste, mismanagement, unsafe building conditions and poor student performance at the district, which prompted the state intervention.

*Also in 1995, Cleveland and Chicago public schools attracted state attention. While Cleveland was taken over by the state, Illinois' legislature passed an education reform bill turning over control of the Chicago public schools to Mayor Richard M. Daley, who restructured the troubled district.

*In 1997, Hartford, Conn., public schools were taken over by the state. Also that year, Baltimore's schools were appointed a new board by the state and mayor.

Most recently, Philadelphia Public School District was threatened with a takeover by the state earlier this year when superintendent David W. Hornbeck said he would close schools early unless the state allocated more money. The 213,000-student district projected a $55 million shortfall in its $1.5 billion budget for the 1998-99 school year. In May, the district received letters of credit from two local banks that would allow it to borrow enough money to keep the financially strapped schools open for the entire 1998-99 school year-temporarily avoiding the threatened takeover by the state.

Two lawsuits have been filed by the district against the state, citing the state violated civil-rights law by underfunding Philadelphia and other districts with a large number of minorities. More than 40 percent of the city's children live below the poverty line, compared with 18 percent statewide.

Philadelphia, like most urban school districts, spends a significant amount of money on things most suburban districts do not, such as increased security measures, school police, metal detectors, non-teaching hallway patrols, health services, detention centers, discipline schools, teen parenting centers, daycare, nurseries, and non-English-speaking classes. This school year, the district will spend $104 million to deal with strictly urban issues.

A strain on tight budgets In general, city school districts suffer disproportionately from a rapidly eroding tax base and an overreliance on local property taxes to finance education, which virtually guarantees poor and urban areas will lag behind non-urban districts.

Finding the money and resources to address facilities needs is especially difficult. One of the biggest challenges impacting school facilities also is one of the most promising developments-technology integration. Incorporating technology into schools has proven to be difficult for many urban districts due to insufficient funds and inadequate infrastructure.

"Technology expansion and the type of systems that are in place to handle it, such as size of electrical services, is a major problem for us right now," says Milwaukee's Moore. "Over the last four years, we have had an electrical-upgrade program underway trying to get ahead of the curve-but it is an uphill battle. Schools typically have discretionary money that they use to enhance their technology or increase the amount of computers they have in the building, but the infrastructure component is always the one that is lagging behind.

"Even though there are initiatives out there right now through the e-rate program and the Teach Wisconsin initiative for technology enhancements, they only go so far. And funding is coming very slowly, it is hard to access, and there is not enough money available for the types of initiatives districts are being asked to implement," he says.

Environmental problems, such as poor indoor air quality (IAQ), also are found in many urban schools. It is estimated that half the schools located in central cities have at least one unsatisfactory environmental condition.

"With the increase in technology, computers, copy machines and everything else that is going into schools, indoor air quality is a concern," says Milwaukee's Moore. "Buildings are being used in a way that existing ventilation systems never were set up to be used."

Minneapolis has a progressive program in place addressing IAQ in schools. The district has teamed with the American Lung Association, the University of Minnesota, and local architecture and engineering firms, creating a set of IAQ guidelines for the design of new facilities, construction practices, and selection of materials and furnishings.

"Last fall we opened the first school [Whittier Community School] we built from the ground up around IAQ," says Minneapolis' Haydon. "Although it cost more [to construct], we did get a grant from the EPA to allow us to compare [IAQ] results of that school with a reference school in a similar area." The district has determined that the IAQ guidelines will be implemented in all future new construction and major retrofit projects.

Supporting the vision

Community support often is lagging in urban areas. While, in general, suburban districts have had much success gaining support for construction projects and building improvements by promoting schools as community centers, most city districts have not.

"I think the community-center concept is very difficult to communicate and visualize in an urban setting where [residents] are not accustomed to that kind of involvement," say Waterloo's Swartzendruber.

"Only 20 percent of the adult population has a direct affiliation with our schools," continues Swartzendruber. "Therefore, the challenge in an urban center is to change around the priorities of a community where education is not a top priority, and then to articulate that in such a way that it starts to gain enough priority that [residents] can begin to view the schools as a community center where they can become involved with each other and not just with schools.

"But then more importantly, how do you rally the rest of the adult population to the extent that they will support planning for infrastructure, and finally paying for infrastructure, where they will believe it will benefit them? This is especially challenging when [residents] have already had a long track record of not having that kind of involvement. It is going to take that kind of public rally by the community to understand what we mean by a community building."

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