Can A New Building Save A Failing School?
When students and teachers at School 16 in Rochester, N.Y., start the new school year in a newer school building, they'll leave their old building's laundry list of infrastructure problems behind.
As teachers finish unloading boxes and setting up their new classrooms, they hope the newer, nicer digs will give students renewed pride in their school. Education experts say the move could also bring a bump to the school's flagging test scores, because better school buildings actually improve academic performance.
A Drain On Spirit And A Drain On Grades
When the Rochester school district voted in July to move School 16 to a larger, newer building, the school's old building was in abysmal condition: Bathrooms lacked sinks and privacy; stairwells were missing safety rails; and the 100-year-old building was so overcapacity that students had to go to a trailer in the parking lot for detention. The floors sagged so much that floor tiles popped off. Students describe peeling paint and rats in the classrooms.
Teacher Michele Michel says the poor condition of the old building sapped the school of its spirit.
"You look at that and it's like, why? Why do you want to take care of your school?" Michel says. "So what if I throw a piece of paper on the ground? It doesn't make a difference; there's other paper on the ground."
As the physical condition of the building declined over the years, student performance also dropped. School 16 is one of the lowest-achieving schools in the district. Last year, only 11 percent of its students passed New York state requirements in English language arts testing; 19 percent passed in math.
School district officials have long known the school needed an extreme makeover, but say it was just one of many schools in the district in disrepair. Rochester is not the only city coping with dilapidated school buildings: As many as 40 percent of public school buildings in the U.S. are in poor condition.
More than eyesores, bad buildings are a drain on academic performance, according to Glen Earthman, an education professor at Virginia Tech who has studied the relationship between school-building conditions and student performance for 25 years.
"[Students] see surroundings that are not very pleasant, [and] it does diminish their desire to learn," Earthman says.
He says students who attend schools in disrepair score 3 to 10 percentage points lower on state tests than students in satisfactory buildings, and the effects are compounded over the years a student spends in the buildings.
"If they are in that building for six years for elementary, or four years in the middle, or four years in high school, we assume that this disadvantage is multiplied four different times, or six different times," Earthman says.
Hopes And Doubts For The New Building
With spacious hallways and larger classrooms, teacher Michele Michel says the boost to student morale in the new building will improve academics.
"I think if you come in and you're happy and, you know, you're all about this place," Michel says, "I think the kids will get it, and you'll get more accomplished."
But Jaida Thomas, an eighth-grader, says she is not sure all of her peers will take pride in their new building.
"With the negative people in the school, they'll probably just mess up the school," Thomas says. "They'll just mess it up for themselves."
District officials say they hope School 16's new facility will make a significant impact on student performance. But they say that at the end of the day, teachers, students and families, working together, will be the solution to turn the school around.
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Studies show that as many of 40 percent of American public school buildings are in poor condition. And that can have an impact on how students learn. School number 16 in Rochester, New York, is one example. It's dilapidated and has been for years. Now, the district is moving all the students out in hopes of giving them a fresh start. The story comes from Helene Biandudi of member station WXXI.
HELENE BIANDUDI, BYLINE: The new school year is just about to kick off in Rochester. And its crunch time at the new city school number 16. Construction workers are busy tearing down old scaffolding and hanging drywall, while teachers like Michele Michel unload boxes, chairs and desks from dollies and start arranging them in their classrooms for opening day.
MICHELE MICHEL: They told us at the end of the year, you know, pack up like we're moving because, you know, it came out. We might be moving. And I was like, OK, let's do it. Can we move tomorrow? You know, here's me throwing stuff in a box.
BIANDUDI: Here's why Michel and others were in such a rush to get out of School 16.
JAIDA THOMAS: The peeling paint and rats in the classroom.
BIANDUDI: Eighth-grader Jaida Thomas says the old school building is a dump, and School 16 principal, Matt Laniak, acknowledges there's a laundry list of infrastructure issues at the school.
MATT LANIAK: The floor is just totally sagging all over the place. It's like a roller coaster. And as a result of the floor being so flexible, all the floor tiles keep popping off.
BIANDUDI: Add to that list, bathrooms without sinks or privacy, stairwells missing safety rails and a 100-year-old building so over capacity kids sent to detention go to a trailer in the parking lot. Michele Michel says the poor condition of the building sapped the school of its spirit.
MICHEL: You look at that, and it's like, why? Why do you want to take care of your school? So what if I throw a piece of paper on the ground? It doesn't make a difference. There's other paper on the ground.
BIANDUDI: The school district has known about these problems for a long time, but officials say they have a lot of other schools in need of repair. And while the physical condition of the building has been on the decline for years, so has student performance. School 16 is one of the lowest achieving schools in the district. This past year, only 11 percent of its students passed New York state requirements in English language arts testing, and 19 percent passed in math.
GLEN EARTHMAN: They see surroundings that are not very pleasant. It does diminish their desire to learn.
BIANDUDI: Glen Earthman is professor emeritus of educational administration at Virginia Tech. He's been studying the relationship between school building conditions and student performance in the U.S. for more than 25 years. Earthman says students who attend schools in disrepair will score anywhere from three to 10 percent lower a year on state tests than students in satisfactory buildings.
EARTHMAN: So if they are in that building for six years in the elementary or four years in the middle or four years in high school, we assume that this disadvantage is multiplied four different times or six different times.
BIANDUDI: This summer, the Rochester City School Board finally decided to move School 16 across town to an updated and much larger school building.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Third grade.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Oh, my God. You're going to be up on the second floor.
BIANDUDI: At a recent orientation in the new building, students and parents walked down the spacious hallways and checked out the large classrooms and the gym. Teacher Michele Michel thinks the move will improve academics thanks to a change in moral.
MICHEL: I think if you come in and you're happy and, you know, you're all about this place, I think the kids will get it, and you'll get more accomplished.
BIANDUDI: But student Jaida Thomas isn't sure all her peers will take pride in their new building.
THOMAS: With the negative people in school, they'll probably just mess up the school because they see opportunity with a good school, and they'll just mess it up for themselves.
BIANDUDI: District officials say they hope the new facility will make a significant impact on student performance. However, they say at the end of the day, teachers, students and families working together will be the solution to turn the school around. For NPR News, I'm Helene Biandudi in Rochester, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.