Barry Yeoman, August 12, 2012
The average public school in this country is more than 40 years old—and showing its age. Roofs leak, walls are ridden with termites and lead paint, and rooms are chronically overcrowded. PARADE looks at two communities that remade their schools—and the lessons they can teach all of us.
Just a few years ago, California’s Santa Ana High School looked like it had long outlived its art deco grandeur. The 1935 building was dilapidated, overcrowded, and scarred with graffiti. Roofs leaked. Sewage backed up in pipes. Some buildings had no mechanical ventilation. The wiring was in “various levels of dysfunction,” says assistant superintendent Joe Dixon. “Computers would go down. Lighting would go down. In the few places where we had air-conditioning, that would go down.” In one building, makeshift classroom partitions forced teachers to shout over one another’s lessons. Between the noise and the heat, “it was hard to focus on my work,” says Elvis Carranza, 16, an incoming senior at Santa Ana. “It made me not want to go to school at all.” What’s more, 34 portable buildings (i.e., trailers) had turned parts of the campus into a labyrinth—surrounded by chain-link fencing that, in Dixon’s words, “made it look like if you could get in, you were never going to get out.”
The sad truth is, Santa Ana High was like thousands of other schools across the United States. Talk of fixing American education tends to focus on teacher retention, test scores, and graduation rates—but we often overlook an equally serious problem: crumbling, antiquated facilities that are hostile to learning and depressing to the children and teachers who spend many of their waking hours there.
An estimated 40 percent of the nation’s 100,000 public schools are in “bad to poor condition,” according to Glen Earthman, Ed.D., a professor emeritus of educational administration at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. Today, the average U.S. public school is over 40 years old. The 21st Century School Fund, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that advocates for healthy and safe learning environments, calculates that it would take $271 billion to bring all of those buildings up to a decent standard. But some communities have taken matters into their own hands to fund the improvements their kids need. Here are two such success stories.
For people in Santa Ana, a city of more than 300,000 located 30 miles south of Los Angeles, the second-rate school facilities were unacceptable. Many residents are immigrants; they often work multiple jobs and share bedrooms in overcrowded apartments. Twenty-eight percent of the city’s children live in poverty. Yet Santa Ana’s parents have ambitious dreams for their kids.
“They want us to do better,” says Carranza, one of five children of a Mexican-born seamstress. His mother, who as a child often walked past the schoolhouse in her village near Santa María del Oro, Jalisco, but never set foot inside, vowed that her own children would have more opportunity. “My mama always told me that the reason she came here,” he says, “was so we could make something of ourselves.”
Raising taxes would not be easy in a city that in 2004 was ranked No. 1 for “urban hardship” by the Rockefeller Institute of Government. But in 2008, Santa Ana residents voted two to one for a $200 million bond issue that would improve the city’s 56 public schools. The resulting property-tax increase—less than $100 per year for a modest house—meant collective belt tightening. “We saw parents picking up recyclables just to make ends meet,” says Maria Cante, the high school’s community and family outreach liaison. But relatively few complained, she says—they knew that better schools would give their children a surer shot at higher education.
More than $40 million went to overhauling Santa Ana High, one of the district’s neediest schools, an effort that was completed over the past three years. Among many improvements, the auditorium was renovated seat by seat, with high-tech lighting and sound added. (Community groups now use the auditorium and other school facilities year-round.) Workers tore down fences and laid an elegant promenade to help make the entrance more inviting. Assistant superintendent Dixon secured an additional $41 million from the state, including an overcrowding-relief grant to help replace the trailers with a two-story classroom building. With more than an acre reclaimed, Santa Ana High once again resembled a true campus.
Visit that campus today and you’ll see young dancers rehearsing in a sun-drenched studio. You’ll watch as history teacher Jason Hollingshead uses interactive games on his electronic “smart board” to bring the civil rights movement to life. You’ll see 11th graders in a chemistry lab huddled around unscratched countertops with gleaming chrome fixtures. You’ll spy seniors eating lunch in a rose garden, under a canopy of magnolias.
Since the modernization, vandalism has virtually ceased and attendance has inched up. Eighty-nine percent of seniors had passed the California High School Exit Exam by this past March, compared with 82 percent in 2011. Teachers say students have grown more engaged. “If you feel valued, it inspires you to pay more attention and work harder,” Carranza says.