When Croghan Elementary was built in the early 1900s, students attended school about 120 days a year, 12 weeks less than students do now (U.S. Department of Education, 1993). Children with exceptional needs, those sometimes termed disabled, did not go to regular public school. At the time, very little was known about how people learn, and misconceptions about intelligence were accepted as fact.
Today, all children are welcome to receive a public education with their peers. In our part of the country, children attend school for 180 days from late August through May. We now know that the classroom environment greatly impacts learning, and that there are many kinds of intelligence.
I advocate for new school buildings in our city because teachers advocate for the children they are entrusted to teach. In my classroom at Croghan, there is a fan that runs from the time the boilers are turned on in October until the boiler is turned off in May, 24 hours a day. This fan is loud. The walls of my classroom are square and hard, causing sound to echo throughout the room. This noise makes it difficult for me to hear my students, and they me. Science tells me that the constant sensory input of sound to their brains causes poor performance on learning tasks, especially for students who are English language learners and those with attention difficulties (Klatte, Bergstrom, & Lachmann, 2013). Students in a noisy environment are not able to discern the sounds that make up words, and mishear pronunciations and directions. Time is then wasted in the classroom to make up for these deficiencies.
New schools are built with acoustics in mind: surfaces angled to deflect echoes, walls crafted to absorb sound. Heating and cooling systems are noiseless, and windows block the sounds of traffic and lawn mowers.
Another issue in my classroom is space, both for learning and for storage. Teachers do not teach lessons to the entire class like they once might have. We know that children learn more when they work in carefully designed small groups spread throughout the room at tables. Science tells us, too, that problem-based learning maximizes the use of school time and keeps kids engaged, reducing off-task behavior. My current classroom is too small for these kinds of best practices. I also do not have the room to store the amount of materials necessary to facilitate problem-based learning throughout the school year. My closets have no shelves, so boxes are stacked one on another, while the students’ belongings hang on hooks in the hallway.
New schools are built with these space issues in mind. Movable walls and inside windows allow teachers to expand spaces as needed and to monitor student activity at all times. Storage closets are plentiful, and students have safe places to store their belongings.
Poor lighting also takes a toll on young learners (National Council on School Facilities, 2016). The bright fluorescent lights on my classroom ceiling may illuminate things well, but they also cause headaches and eye strain. Eye strain is a serious issue when we know that students who read more, achieve more. However, when you enter the hallways, the light is sparse, focusing, for safety reasons, mostly on the stairwells.
New schools are designed to use natural light to great effect. Large windows and skylights allow the sun to shine in but are also treated to keep out harmful UV rays and excessive heat. Such natural light is known to be easier on the eyes and to improve mood. Plus there is an economic benefit in the reduced use of electricity.
But my biggest concern with our aged buildings is the safety issue. The State of Ohio requires schools to have frequent drills, including tornado drills and lockdown drills. During the tornado drills it is plain to see that there is no way to safely shield the entire student body from the potential of flying debris during a tornado. The students are not evacuated to the basement because it is full of asbestos and it is wet, so they curl up in the hallways of the first floor, vulnerable to heavy doors flying open and glass windows shattering.
Another unsafe scenario that we drill for each month is that of an intruder in the building. In the quiet of these drills, as we wait for the all-clear, it becomes apparent that my students are basically trapped in their second story classrooms if someone wants to cause them harm. Our classroom doors open out, away from the classroom, so we cannot stack furniture against the door to prevent someone from entering. Jumping out a window is not an option. There are only a few cameras pointing at the main door and office, so no one can monitor where an intruder would be. And I have no phone in my classroom, only my personal cell, which doesn’t work well from my room.
New schools are built with these safety measures in mind. Doors open into classrooms, cameras are placed throughout the space, and every room has a phone.
Croghan has other issues: window frames and ceilings leak in driving rain, ruining books; the space between some windows’ panes is full of brown, peeling coating that came loose when the vacuum seal broke; my room is so cold at times that students wear their coats in the classroom; when it is very hot, a 10 x 10 foot space in the center of the room is the only place students can feel the ceiling fan; students need to carry food trays from the kitchen down a set of stairs to the gym to eat, resulting in spilled food; the stage is used as storage, so most assemblies are held on the gym floor; tutors and volunteers lack space, so they work with children in noisy hallways , trying to help them improve their reading; the boys’ and girls’ bathrooms are on opposite sides of the building, so teachers of primary grades waste time taking first the boys to the bathroom, then the girls; and there is no elevator in our building so there have been times when students must be carried up and down the stairs to their classrooms. I also suspect the number of students who experience bloody noses and irritated eyes is related to the content of the fine dust that swirls through the air when the windows are open. This old building impedes learning in so many ways.
New schools would bring new life and learning into our district. I dream of teaching in a space where all students can hear me clearly, where they can all read for long periods free of harsh lighting, where they can all learn in ways that work best for each and every one, and where their safety has been designed into the very building. Please, consider the children of Fremont and their learning when you vote on May 2.
Fifth Grade Teacher
Klatte, M., Bergstrom, K., & Lachmann, T. (1993). Does noise affect learning? A short review on noise effects on cognitive performance in children. Frontiers in Psychology 4(578). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3757288/
National Council on School Facilities. (2016). State of Our Schools. Retrieved from http://www.21csf.org/best-home/docuploads/pub/331_StateofOurSchools2016.pdf
U.S. Department of Education. (1993). 120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/pubs93/93442.pdf