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A Lesson Plan to Fix Aging K-12 Schools

Graduate Course Finds Hidden Infrastructure Crisis Hits Hardest in Low-income Communities of Color

By Maggie Haslam

Horace Furness High School exterior

An aging school in Philadelphia exemplifies some of the infrastructure struggles faced by many schools nationwide, particularly those in low-income communities of color. A new graduate course is examining how to promote equitable school investments.

Photo by Nick-philly/Wikimedia Commons

Over the past two years, schools across the United States have grappled with how to educate kids in the era of COVID-19. But, for many schools, the struggle transcends a global pandemic, as aging school buildings disproportionately compromise the health and safety of school communities across the country, particularly in underinvested, low-income communities of color.

Now, a pilot graduate course led by University of Maryland Assistant Professor Ariel Bierbaum in partnership with University of Pennsylvania Assistant Professor Akira Drake Rodriguez seeks to position K-12 school infrastructure as integral to a community’s health, opportunity and resilience.

Focusing on the School District of Philadelphia, Maryland students used state and city resources to create an online toolkit that is part story map and part strategy guide to illustrate how policies, funding and neighborhood conditions fed a cycle of school disinvestment. It forms what students hope is a one-stop shop for engaging advocates, communities and stakeholders in a constructive process for planning equitable public-school infrastructure.

“School planning is not actually seen as a subfield of community planning. We don’t see courses on K12 schools in the graduate planning curriculum across the country. But why not?” said Bierbaum, who has been researching issues at the intersection of community planning and education for over 15 years. “Public schools are public assets in our neighborhoods.”

Unlike public infrastructure such as roads and bridges, the federal government contributes zero dollars to school facility maintenance or management; state funding makes up a small fraction of the public-school infrastructure budget, with funding largely dependent on a local community’s wealth, leading to inequity across the country. A 2020 U.S. Government Accountability Office report on school facilities found a gross percentage of schools—over half—with failing heating, ventilation or HVAC systems. In Philadelphia, the school system is currently has over $5 billion in deferred maintenance; teachers, staff and students navigate visibly crumbling buildings that hide the hidden dangers of asbestos, mold, lead paint and unsafe drinking water.

Bierbaum and Rodriguez are building on the students’ toolkit in their ongoing action research with Philadelphia advocates as they develop a wide-scale People’s School Facilities Master Plan and planning process.

“People, a lot of times, don’t know where to start,” said Jerry Roseman, director of environmental science and occupational safety and health for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers Health & Welfare Fund. “The toolkit seems to be a natural answer. It would be useful to put in front of the city council to look and see what could be done with this kind of approach.”

In addition to providing regional context, interventions and an exhaustive roster of data sources, students pinpoint strategies for leveraging that data for change; school district maintenance and capital needs data, for example, can help identify and prioritize schools ripe for investment. The students suggested that, by focusing on one school in each sub-area of the district at a time, advocates can leverage that success story to build momentum for improving other area schools. This bottom-to-top strategy, Rodriguez said, gives people hope.

“The idea is for each community to rally around a school in the neighborhood that has the most quantified problems,” said graduate student Winnie Cargill. “That would be a way to use the toolkit and to kick-start work in other schools in the neighborhood. It prevents people from saying, ‘The problem is too big.’”

The toolkit is grounded in the idea that community-based efforts are critical to moving school districts and city officials. “Pressure from the outside tends to be very good,” added graduate student Jeff DelMonico, a planning specialist for Howard County. “I do find that when we hear chatter, that gets around the conference room. It is that pressure, I think, that creates an avenue that didn’t exist before.”

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