By Dr. Linda Lemasters.

In 1973 Thurgood Marshall wrote the dissenting opinion in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez:

It is an inescapable fact that if one district has more funds available per pupil than another district, the former will have greater choice in educational planning than will the latter. In this regard, I believe the question of discrimination in educational quality must be deemed to be an objective one that looks to what the State provides its children, not to what the children are able to do with what they receive. That a child forced to attend an underfunded school with poorer physical facilities [emphasis added], less experienced teachers, larger classes, and a narrower range of courses than a school with substantially more funds—and thus with greater choice in educational planning—may nevertheless excel is to the credit of the child, not the State. Indeed, who can ever measure for such a child the opportunities lost and the talents wasted for want of a broader, more enriched education?

Though written 42 years ago, we continue to face many of the same disparities. I wrote about educational disparities a few months ago, but I would like to be more specific in my concerns. As a college professor in educational leadership, hardly a day goes by that an article, a conference announcement, an email, or a piece of research comes across my desk about the achievement gap. The gap is a real detriment to our country with a waste of talent, and immeasurable in its affect on our society.

In the same articles, email, or research, varied solutions are proposed. Nearly all of them go back to the genesis of teaching, leadership, technology, supplies, class size, and/or many other suggestions, and some, if not all, of these factors may be interrelated. Sad to say, there is only a small group of educators in America who relate some of the achievement gap to where our children learn. There is even a more select group that conducts research relating the gap to the condition of the schools. The schools in most need of repair are often those who report lower overall achievement scores. These schools are found in the poor areas of our cities, towns, and rural districts and are disproportionately attended by severe low-income and minority students.

The question is: Are these facilities contributing to the achievement gap? The Education Facilities Clearinghouse recently commissioned C. Kenneth Tanner, Professor Emeritus, University of Georgia, to conduct a meta-analysis of effects of school design on student success. He was able to identify best practices in schools and school design:

  • Safety and security measures, as defined by Tanner’s meta-analysis, have a statistically significant impact on student outcomes.

Students need to feel free from gangs, hunger, intruders, violence, social disparities, and persecution. As Maslow’s hierarchy indicates, humans need to feel secure and have a sense of belonging, safety, and confidence. Have you noted inner city schools in which the very physical setting alarmed your sense of safety and security?

  • Quiet places and spaces for reflection have a statistically significant influence on student outcomes.

Students need places that make them feel they are needed and belong in the school environment. Again, Maslow wrote about self-actualization and its dependence on both belonging and a place for reflection. All children need small personal learning spaces, alcoves to read, and small group spaces for interaction in safe, dry, and clean facilities. In poorly funded districts, overcrowding and inadequate facility maintenance are more often the reality.

  • Color is statistically significant in its effect on student achievement.

Tanner (2015) wrote: “Color patterns throughout the facility can influence motivation. Hot colors encourage students to become more physically active, while cool colors tend to convey a reassuring effect.” If you have not seen them personally, think about the school facility pictures you have seen where the paint is so old, dull, and peeled you cannot even tell what color it is. Sad to say, students affected by the achievement gap often are relegated to these rundown schools.

  • Ample state-of-the-art technology for teachers and students makes a statistically significant contribution to student achievement.

It is impossible for the educator to know how teaching and learning will be influenced by technology in the future; however, are students in our less wealthy districts being afforded the same technological opportunities as students in the more wealthy districts? How can we expect the same outcomes without the same opportunities; i.e., computers to take home (iPads, Chromebooks, or other handheld devices), computer labs, and teachers knowledgeable about technology and how to use it as a learning and teaching tool?

These are only four of Tanner’s statistically significant findings. In total he identified twelve findings and fifteen best practices. All fifteen classifications in his research are postulated to have positive effects on student outcomes. I encourage you to read his research and ask yourself the question: Are your schools providing equal facilities to all children? Or, are there inequities that may contribute to the achievement gap?

As noted a few paragraphs ago, Marshall spoke of poor school facilities over four decades ago. He did not call it the achievement gap, but he spoke of opportunities lost and talents wasted. We can debate how to solve the problem, and discussion is needed. The school facility, however, is a “fixable” component of improving student achievement. Why are so many schools districts across the nation not enabled to improve the places where our students learn—especially for the minority and low-income students most affected by the achievement gap?

References and Resources:

Ballenger, K. A. (2014). The grave disparities in modern education, segregation, and school budgeting: A comparison between Brown v. Board of Education and San Antonio Independent School System District v. Rodriguez. Knoxville, TN: Trace: Tennessee Research and Creative Exchange.

Lacoe, J. (2013, March). Too scared to learn? The academic consequences of feeling unsafe at school. New York: Institute for Education and Social Policy (IESP). Retrieved on August 7, 2015 from

Martorell, P., McFarlin, Jr., I., & Stange, K. (2014, December). Investing in schools: Capital spending, facility conditions, and student achievement. Retrieved from Federal Reserve Bank of New York on August 7, 2015:

Service Employees International Union. (n.d.). Falling further apart: Decaying schools in New York City’s Poorest Neighborhoods. Retrieved on August 7, 2015:

Smith, C. D. (2014). Continued disparities in school facilities: Analyzing Brown v. Board of Education’s singular approach to quality education. Tennessee Journal of Race, Gender, & Social Justice, 3(1), p. 38-66.

Tanner, C. K. (2015). Effects of school architectural designs on students’ Accomplishments: An meta-analysis. Retrieved from the Education Facilities Clearinghouse (EFC) on August 17, 2015:

Vincent, J. M., & Filardo, M. W. (2008, June). Linking school construction investments to equity, smart growth, and healthy communities. Retrieved from Center for Cities & Schools (CC&S) and Building Educational Success Together (BEST) on August 7, 2015:

Linda Lemasters, Director, Education Facilities Clearinghouse

Linda is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education and Human Development of the George Washington University, where she advises students, directs student research, and directs a project at Taibah University in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Her areas of expertise and research include educational planning, facilities management, and women CEOs. She actively conducts research concerning the effects of the facility on the student and teacher, publishes within her field, and has written or edited numerous books including School Maintenance & Renovation: Administrator Policies, Practices, and Economics and book chapters including a recent chapter, Places Where Children Play, published July, 2014 in Marketing the Green School: Form, Function, and the Future.

By C. Kenneth Tanner, 2015.

Architectural scholars have called for a complete working alternative to existing ideas about architecture in general.  Since 1997 the School Design & Planning Laboratory has sought a similar alternative for school architecture, including the total educational environment, and worked persistently toward this goal.  Hence, the objective of one primary cluster of SDPL research was to extend innovative ideas of these highly respected scholars to the field of educational architecture.  Findings from the body of research, as discussed in this document, have also been interlocked to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs pyramid.  The purpose for effecting this association was to guide how we think about the physical environment’s capacity to motivate individuals, especially students in school environments.

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By Greg Smith, Project Manager, Brailsford & Dunlavey, and Dr. Debra Henson, Executive Director of Facilities Management, Dekalb County School District.


Planning for the future is often done in a rear view mirror we plan based on what we know and create based on our own personal experiences, education, and expectations. So how can we, as educational facilities leaders and professionals, create an environment that delivers education in a way that resembles real world learning/working environments as they exist now and as they will exist in the future? The need to prepare students for a workplace that no longer operates in an industrial economic fashion, as it once did, is critical in order to ensure the next generation is ready for a new economy and workplace. As we enter this transformational phase in K-12 education and strive to prepare students for this new reality, we are challenged to determine the most beneficial capital improvement investments that incorporate new 21st century learning components.

American schools, designed around a standard learning environment that supports a lecture style of teaching, have remained relatively unchanged for the last 50 years while we have evolved into a society of visual and tactile learners.  “Show me,” “interact with me,” “don’t just speak at me,” this is what our students ask of us. The critical components of learning that allow the modern student to effectively engage with educators and fellow students alike are the foundation for environments that encourage the four C’s:  critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration.    This new model of education that focuses on engaging with students in a variety of ways is referred to as 21st century learning and the supporting facilities are 21st century learning environments.

Technology is often considered the catalyst for identifying 21st century spaces and its importance cannot be overrated.  It is a tool, a resource that aids in the learning process and links real world platforms to PK-16 educational environments.  But it is only a tool.

So what defines these 21st century learning environments? The words we most often use are flexible, agile, and adaptable, words that ultimately mean being able to adjust to new conditions, modify for a new use or purpose, and allow flexibility to engage students in a variety of ways. The 21st century learning environments respond, not react, to individual learning styles, teaching styles, and a variety of educational paradigms, including new Common Core standards.  Educational facilities, similarly, need to respond to the needs of students, teachers, and community—form follows function—and provide a variety of opportunities for students to experience authentic interaction with real world involvement.

But how can we make informed capital investment decisions on adaptable learning environments? The practice of “evidence-based design” helps connect the relationship school facilities have with their impact on learning.  As we continue to advance the research and examine what has been done in traditional schools and classrooms in planning and delivering 21st century learning, it will become increasingly imperative to understand the drivers responsible for different educational outcomes and create an effective physical framework for making capital improvement decisions that consider risk tolerances.

The Dekalb County School District (DCSD) is currently implementing construction of approximately $500 million in capital improvements under their special-purpose-local-option sales tax (SPLOST) IV Program.  A primary focus of the program is how to best incorporate 21st century learning concepts into their facilities. One of the key challenges arising from this focus has been bringing its aging elementary schools into the 21st century while maintaining a balance with traditional education.  DCSD is designing and constructing seven new prototypical elementary schools to replace some of the schools that are aged and in need of replacement. The project’s architect laid out some of the decisions made in order to achieve traditional education environments while also advancing their schools with new 21st century learning elements. He explained the three primary design decisions that the district made. First, they decided to incorporate 8-12 “flex spaces” that are smaller than classrooms and available for use in a variety of ways ranging from teacher meetings to student groups to specialized smaller learning sessions. These spaces will allow DCSD to maintain traditional classrooms as the primary learning environments while giving them the flexibility for collaborative learning or other uses, as needed. The second decision made was to incorporate an outdoor amphitheater in the prototype design. This option allows the schools to have outdoor classes, presentations, or group-based projects. And third, DCSD is currently working toward replacing the existing classroom furniture that combines the chair and the desk into one unit with separate mobile chairs and tables that allow teachers to be flexible in classroom set-ups. Rather than having student desks in rows for a lecture-oriented class, as is the case with the chair-and-desk combination unit, the new furniture can be set up in several ways to support different class activities.

America’s schools must continue to take these initial steps to evolve its schools and prepare students for the new economy. This, of course, means that facility planners must continue striving to identify drivers that produce the educational outcomes schools seek for their students, ones that help owners make informed capital improvement decisions to achieve a new targeted reality. There is much we continue to learn about transforming our K-12 schools into adaptable and flexible spaces and careful capital planning is as important now as it has ever been.  Maybe more so.

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Brailsford & Dunlavey is a program management firm with comprehensive in-house planning capabilities, dedicated to serving educational institutions, municipalities, public agencies, and nonprofit clients from offices throughout the U.S.

Marable, 2015

There are times when local education agencies (LEAs) go to their governing bodies for funding for school designs that include construction of a green school—a school that supports sustainable practices or has environmentally friendly facilities.  While this type of construction can be supported in the research for reasons that include health, safety, and planet friendly practice, there often is little said about the instructional components of such facilities.  This paper will explain how the components of green schools can enhance the implementation of environmental education curricula that help support 21st century skills.  Currently, there is no set standard for the implementation of environmental education in green schools or for schools that utilize the building as a teaching tool for students. A recent study (Marable, 2015) was conducted in Virginia to help establish pedagogical best practices for environmental education, while describing how educators currently use LEED buildings as a teaching tool to support sustainable practices. The findings from the study indicated teachers employ practices that are consistent with current emphases on environmental education.  Data also supported that educators take pride in their buildings and incorporate the facility as a teaching tool in a variety of instructional practices throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia.

The findings of this recent study and other relevant research explain and provide real examples of current environmental education practices being utilized to support 21st century skills within LEED certified schools.  Examples of how the facility may be used as a teaching tool in environmental education are provided by school grade levels (elementary and secondary) and by building features in LEED construction.

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By Bill Blumenthal, VP, PC4HS.

When launching an upgrade to your school’s cleaning program, consider starting by cleaning up your ‘cleaning’ products to reduce unnecessary chemical use. In many cases, your custodial crew and teaching staff can reduce or eliminate many cleaning chemicals—such as those with fragrances—without sacrificing effective cleaning.

To ensure that what you do use is ‘greener,’ choose products certified by Green Seal’s GS-37 or UL Environment’s Ecologo or those products having EPA’s Safer Choice label, for example. In some circumstances, an EPA-registered disinfectant might be needed as the lesser of two evils (pathogens vs. harsh germicidal chemicals).

There are sound reasons to use less cleaning chemistry.

Less Toxic, Disruptive Chemistry = Greater Health

Endocrine Disruptors (EDs), found in many common cleaning and maintenance products, are chemicals that act like hormones in humans and wildlife. EDs can also be produced by reactions related to product ingredients, such as when terpenes react with air pollution to create formaldehyde. EDs are often active in parts-per-billion, thus the “dose makes the poison” rule may not apply. Tiny amounts of EDs can have a big effect on body function and some may cause cancer (DHHS, 2014).

Ingredients such as bleach, quats, phthalates, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in cleaning or disinfecting products are suspected to cause or aggravate respiratory ills such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Asthma is the number one chronic cause of student absenteeism in schools. One out of every 10 school-aged children has asthma, resulting in more than 10 million missed school days per year (EPA, 2013). Ingredients in common cleaning products may worsen asthma (Vizcaya et al., 2015).

Breathing easier at school can improve performance of students, teachers, and staff. Thankfully, reducing or eliminating exposure to hazardous cleaning chemicals can enhance both health and the bottom line.

Less Harsh Chemistry = More Money

School funding is often based on attendance, so reducing triggers for asthma and other respiratory conditions may improve attendance and fiscal support. Elk Grove Unified schools (CA) reported a two-percent attendance gain associated with implementation of green cleaning according to a Regional Asthma Management and Prevention (RAMP) report (RAMP, 2009). Eliminating aerosols and hazardous products in a Pennsylvania school district saved $19,883.25 annually according to American School and University magazine (Shideler, 2001).

The switch to more benign ingredients in green-certified cleaning products can save money in other ways too. Major green certifications require cleaning products be purchased as concentrates to reduce packaging and carbon-intensive transport of water. Dispensing concentrated solutions via automatic dilution systems reduces the added costs associated with ready-to-use (RTU) products.

Less Dirty Chemistry = More Time, Safety

If not thoroughly rinsed from surfaces, ‘cleaning’ chemicals can actually make surfaces dirtier by leaving residues. Many residues are also biodegradable, which means they may harbor microbes that feed on residues. Removing residues is additional work and wastes time. Nonchemical interventions—such as dry steam vapor sanitation, microfiber and water programs, spray-and-vacuum systems, and other reduced-chemistry methods—may be safer cleaning alternatives that also save time.

To illustrate the benefits of one of these nonchemical interventions, consider the microfiber and water method. Microfiber cloths or mops consist of ultrafine synthetic strands, commonly polyester or polyester-polyamide blends. Microfiber cleaning cloths and mops cost more than cotton cloths or mops but are often more economical due to inherent durability and performance traits. For instance, woven microfiber (sometimes called “split microfiber”) captures particles and moisture better than cotton terry towels, without producing lint.

In many cases, microfiber cloths and mops can clean using just tap water and a mild neutral-pH cleaner, if needed. Utilizing microfiber and water instead of harsher cleaning chemicals reduces negative chemical impacts and purchasing, transport, storage, inventory, and disposal costs.

Less Unwanted Chemistry = Cleaner Environment

What is not brought into your school or classroom will not have to be removed later. Avoid the introduction of unnecessary chemical cleaners into schools. A cleaner, healthier school environment can be achieved with less cost, freeing up resources for better teaching and learning.

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Regional Asthma Management and Prevention (RAMP). (2009). Breathing Easier − School Districts Make the Switch to Certified Green Cleaning Products. Retrieved from s/2009/11/Breathing-Easier-Report.pdf

Shideler, L. (2001). A Clean School is a Healthy School. American School & University. Retrieved from

United States Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), (2014). 13th Report on Carcinogens. Retrieved from

United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). (2013). EPA Asthma Fact Sheet. Retrieved from

Vizcaya, D., Mirabelli, M. C., Gimeno, D., Antó, J. M., Delclos, G. L., Rivera, M., ... & Zock, J. P. (2015). Cleaning products and short-term respiratory effects among female cleaners with asthma. Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Retrieved from

About the Author

William R. “Bill” Blumenthal is vice-president of the 501c3 nonprofit Process Cleaning for Healthy Schools® (PC4HS) organization. He is a 17-year veteran of the cleaning industry experienced in both internal and contracted operations. Blumenthal is Custodial Supervisor for Douglas County School District in Nevada.

By Angel Ford.

I remember high school biology vividly. I remember that it smelled funny and at times I was grossed out by the displays—some in pictures and some in jars. I recall hands-on activities, such as fermenting cabbage to create sauerkraut and then putting it on pizza, and dissecting small animals—thankfully not while eating pizza. I didn’t pursue any area of life science after high school; in fact, I avoided those types of careers because they didn’t fit my personality or interests. However, I did learn a great deal from my lab experiences. Understanding cardiac reports and understanding why certain plants live or die while in my less-than-expert care are just a couple of priceless gems from the biology lab.

Even though there were many benefits in the biology lab, my experiences in the physics lab at that same high school had a significant impact on my future. The physics curriculum seemed beyond challenging, yet the atmosphere, equipment, and experiences piqued my interest. I remember being engaged by my teacher’s excitement and desire for us to learn. The class was furnished with a variety of resources and plenty of room to move around.

I believe the instruction and hands-on experiments in that lab equipped me to become an electro-environmental technician in the Air Force. High school physics helped prepare me to fix billion dollar airplanes with engaging lessons in foundational electrical and mechanical concepts. These same experiences helped me fix my car, other electrical items around my house, and even helped me diagnose a generator in a small village in Mozambique. I’m thankful for the opportunities that I had in science labs because of passionate teachers and the facilities and resources available to enhance their lessons.

Had my experiences in those labs—specifically the physics lab—been different, my life path may have been altered. Had my science classes been held in regular classrooms that restricted those teachers’ methods of instruction, I may not have absorbed as readily, and later been able to apply concepts from physics. I am not an anomaly here. Many people certainly learn more from creating electrical circuits than merely studying schematics and memorizing facts. Many could grasp how to ferment veggies better if they too had the opportunity to taste their own sauerkraut. I’m not against either studying textbooks or memorization; however, I am suggesting that one learns more through hands-on laboratory experiences when these teaching methods are part of the curriculum.

Concerns about students’ achievement of science in our nation are increasing. These anxieties are based on many factors, one of which is the low test scores of students. In 2011, 35 percent of 8th grade students in America tested below the basic level in science (NCES, 2012). In 2010 the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (2010) emphasized the importance of increasing science performance. This report suggested that this goal could, at least in part, be met by aiding in the formation of strong science identities (how students see themselves in relation to science), and increasing the science motivation and self-efficacy of students.

Interestingly enough studies have demonstrated that the school buildings/classrooms affect teaching and learning (Earthman & Lemasters, 2011). Research also supports the idea that students who engage in active learning, such as hands-on projects and group science projects are prone to score higher on science achievement tests (NCES, 2012), and tend to have an increase in their enjoyment of science (Gilmore, 2013). How many of the students in our nation are in science classrooms that are not optimally constructed for such learning?

Classrooms are not the only factor to consider when looking at increasing science interest, motivation, or achievement. Could it be, however, that by improving the learning environment and providing students and teachers access to appropriately designed and adaptable science labs, that improvements would also occur?

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Earthman, G. I., & Lemasters, L. K. (2011). The influence of school building conditions on students and teachers: A theory-based research program (1993-2011). The ACEF Journal, 1(1), 15-36.

Gilmore, M. (2013). Improvement of STEM education: Experiential learning is the key. Mod. Chem. Appl, 1, e109.

National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), (2012). Science 2011: National Assessment of Educational Progress at Grade 8. U. S. Department of Education.

President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. (2010). (Executive Summary) REPORT TO THE PRESIDENT Prepare and Inspire: K-12 Education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) for America’s Future. Retrieved March 19, 2015

By G. Victor Hellman.

Educators are increasingly aware of the importance of properly designed and maintained facilities for effective learning and instruction. There is much discussion on approaches to learning in the 21st century and what a 21st century school looks like. In addition, there is a growing body of knowledge citing the merits of Community Learning Centers (CLC) or community schools (Malone & Jacobson, 2014). The benefits of Community Learning Centers (CLC) are well known. In an EFC blog post this past September, Malone and Jacobson outlined the advantages of CLCs. Community Learning Centers provide a student with many social supports that they otherwise would not have access to. It is my contention that a community school must include attributes that extend beyond the facility or school walls.

On June 2, 2015, the Education Facilities Clearinghouse (EFC) in cooperation with the Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL) and the Coalition for Community Schools (CCS) sponsored a Community Learning Center study trip to Cincinnati, Ohio. In addition to staff from the three organizations, representatives from organizations such as the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), National School Boards Association (NSBA), 21st Century School Fund (21CSF), Council of Great City Schools (CGSC), architects and state level facilities directors participated. While in Cincinnati, we had the opportunity to visit three different public school sites: Pleasant Ridge Montessori Community Learning Center, Oyler Community Learning Center, and Roberts Academy Community Learning Center. The testimonials we heard on this study trip validated the merits of what CLCs can offer.

While on our study trip, we examined the factors that influenced the success of the CLCs. We can identify the key steps that Cincinnati took as they implemented their 12-year, $1 billion capital campaign (IEL, 2014). The process involved over one year of public engagement, one year of design, and one and a half to two years of construction for each facility. These steps were repeated for the construction of 34 new buildings and 16 total renovations. The final result was 5,351,668 ft2 of new school facilities designed to meet the individual needs of each community (IEL). This was a mammoth undertaking! The amount of man-hours required for just the public engagement part of the process is beyond comprehension.

What did we observe on this study trip that would provide insight into how to plan, design, and implement community schools successfully? Some of the more relevant components of the process I observed were not academic or per-square-foot cost calculations. What I observed was not designing a perfect floor plan and replicating it across the division. To the contrary, I observed a key individual at the center of the action, spearheading the program—a woman who was a driving force and would not take ‘No’ for an answer or settle for second best. This individual was quietly humble yet had the political capital to muster the appropriate resources and bring them together for the good of students. Yes, the facilities were beautiful and built to facilitate each community school’s individually determined mission; however, in addition to having nice, modern facilities, the three schools on the tour were led by caring, student-centered individuals. Parents were actively involved in the education of their children, and students were having fun and were engaged in the learning process.

The skeptical educator might think all this positive talk is a fantasy, but it is reality in the schools we toured in Cincinnati. It was a reality that begat success not only for the students, but also for the entire neighborhood. I pondered what created this success. How is it that Cincinnati achieved a sense of community across its schools that is rarely seen in other divisions? I asked the champion at the center of the project, “To what do you attribute the success?” Her answer was rather simple, yet it presented the challenge that school administrators across the country face daily: Trust.

During the public engagement planning sessions of the building campaign, Cincinnati community members were asked what was important to them in their neighborhood schools. Initially, many citizens were reluctant to provide input and did not have faith that the process would respond and deliver on their articulated desires. The public engagement process honored the wishes and desires of the constituents and thereby earned their trust. Once citizens realized their input was valued and incorporated into the final product, a sense of ownership was established among all participants. A sense of ownership built upon trust is at the center of a successful community school, or any school for that matter. Whether a division decides to implement the community school model or not, school administrators need to be reminded how important it is to have the trust of the families they serve.

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Malone, H. & Jacobson, R. (2014, September 8). Bricks and mortar: community schools as an essential facilities strategy. Retrieved from

Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL). (Producer). (2014). Community school facilities: authentic engagement, shared space, and neighborhood hubs [Video Webinar]. Retrieved from

Victor serves as the Research Project Director for the Education Facilities Clearinghouse (EFC). Dr. Hellman has more than 31 years of work experience in public schools in Virginia. Prior to joining the EFC, Dr. Hellman served as Deputy Superintendent of Operations and Support for a mid-urban school district. In that role, he was responsible for finance, facilities, transportation, student services, and food services.

By Linda Lemasters.

In America we have accepted that public education is critical to the very foundation of our country. One of the topics that is not always considered when we discuss public education is equity. Are all schools provided with the same resources, quality of teaching, facilities, and parental support? We sometimes do not speak the obvious, but think about the schools you have visited in urban areas and how they differ from schools in the suburbs. The literature exposes the achievement gap in urban and suburban areas, but what about the funding gap? What differences are related to the funding in urban and rural areas?

Some of the funding differences may be due to the sprawl of the suburban areas, with suburban areas having higher transportation and utility costs. A study in Nova Scotia indicated the difference in the city’s annual costs per household between suburban and urban infrastructure and transportation in Halifax was $1,623 USD (Figure 1). What is most interesting about this visual, however, is the difference spent on schools, libraries, and school bussing. . .three items, which may relate directly or indirectly to the achievement gap. Some urban children have no free or public transportation to school and little or no access to libraries and the services they provide.

The consequences of funding disparities in American schools are sobering. “The funding gap shows that many low-income minority students are subjected to inferior facilities, less adequate teachers, and an incomparable curriculum to their counterparts” (Wright, 2012). Russo (2011) made the point more poignant when he wrote about Illinois schools, “In both 2002 and 2011, the 10 poorest schools on average spent 30 percent of what the 10 richest schools spent on average to educate each student. . .”

Let’s look more closely at the impact of the funding gap on school facilities. Local Education Agencies (LEAs) that do not receive adequate funding are putting students at a disadvantage with:

  1. The most inexperienced and lowest paid teachers,
  2. Limited access to up-to-date textbooks,
  3. Limited access to relevant technologies and new computers, (often the older buildings will not accommodate the necessary electrical power for these advances), and
  4. Poorly furnished science labs.

Often the poorer LEAs cannot focus on:

  1. The latest in safety measures,
  2. Cleanliness of hallways, classrooms, and bathrooms,
  3. Graffiti on walls, lockers, desks, and bathrooms, and
  4. Maintenance issues, such as ceiling and wall disrepair, broken lights, leaky roofs, and chipped paint.

The Education Trust calculated the funding gap per student by poverty, minority background, and by state, based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Education, for the 2003-2004 school year. The numbers are staggering for many states. In the State of Pennsylvania, the gap between revenues per student in the highest- and lowest poverty districts is $1,001 and it is $454 per student in the highest-and lowest-minority districts. (Hobson, pp. 17-18)

Wiener and Pristoop (2006) took the per-student disparity and multiplied it by 25 students per classroom to illustrate how funding gaps can add up, classroom by classroom and school by school. Using this method, the projected funding difference in the State of New York between two elementary schools of 400 students—one from the highest-poverty quartile and one from the lowest-poverty quartile—would translate to $927,600 in favor of the richer district. In a similar way, the funding gap between two high schools of 1500 students in the State of Illinois would translate to a disparity of $2,886,000 in funding in favor of the district with less poverty.

Funding inequalities are present in federal, state, and local governments. Equalizing this funding is not likely to equalize the education all students receive; however, it is the first step to enhancing the education of our urban youth. This brings us full circle to what we discussed in the beginning of this blog: Funding does affect the achievement gap. Hobson stated it very well:

The benefits of equal funding, a prerequisite for improving quality education, outweighs [sic] the costs; this is especially true when the positive externalities of a value-added education are analyzed. Some of these positive externalities are: a diverse and skilled workforce, citizens who have a superior understanding of and participation in the democratic process, the loss of incentive to commit crimes as more education translates into a higher income capacity and greater conformity to a set of society values.

It seems only fitting that all students attend school in clean, healthy, safe environments; that they have quality teachers; that we rid our American public education system of the plague of disparities in educational quality and financing.


Figure 1: The Real Costs of Suburban Sprawl

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References and resources:

Carrasco, A. (2015, March 9). The Real Costs of Suburban Sprawl in One Infographic. Downloaded on May 25, 2015:

Hobson, I. The Public Education Funding Dilemma. Downloaded on June 8, 2015:

Russo, A. (2011, November 8). Whatever Happened to School Funding Gaps? This Week in Education. Downloaded on June 6, 2015:

Wiener, R., & Pristoop. E. (2006). How states shortchange the districts that need the most help. Washington, DC: The Education Trust.

Wright, W. (2013). Proceedings of The National Conference on Undergraduate Research, 2012: The Disparities between Urban and Suburban American Education Systems: A Comparative Analysis Using Social Closure Theory. Ogden, Utah: Weber State University.

Linda Lemasters, Director, Education Facilities Clearinghouse

Linda is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education and Human Development of The George Washington University, where she teaches graduate level coursework, advises students, and directs student research. Her areas of expertise and research include educational planning, facilities management, and women CEOs. She actively conducts research concerning the effects of the facility on the student and teacher, publishes within her field, and has written or edited numerous books including School Maintenance & Renovation: Administrator Policies, Practices, and Economics and book chapters including a recent chapter, Places Where Children Play, published July, 2014 in Marketing the Green School: Form, Function, and the Future.

By T. R. Dunlap.

Over the last decade STEM has been the topic of much discussion in education circles. STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education promotes pertinent, science-related courses of study in the educational experience of students. In an increasingly globalized and competitive market, it is widely recognized that the need for STEM skills is rapidly increasing. While STEM sectors are in high demand, it seems there are simply not enough proficient participants in these fields. The U.S. Department of Education reports that only 16 percent of American high schools seniors are prepared for and interested in a STEM career (U.S. Department of Education, n.d.). With statistics like this, there is a gathering storm in the American workforce.

In American education there has been a tremendous redirection of attention to emphasize STEM courses. Consequently, governmental and philanthropic investments have been made to make STEM classes central in our education system. It follows that facility administrators and planners have sought funds to develop and bolster STEM programs at many private and public schools, and universities have invested millions of dollars in STEM-related facilities. There are some important considerations to keep in mind as educational institutions seek to expand services into the STEM markets with state-of-the-art facilities. Here are just three:


STEM courses are important! Nobody is arguing against that fact. It stands to reason that educational institutions should invest in facilities that meet the demands of a global market. However, every facility may not be equipped for the most advanced STEM classroom features, and fiscal constraints will be a factor. There is great financial cost involved in designing, building or retrofitting facilities for STEM education. Biology and chemistry labs, science observation rooms, technology centers, etc., are all important and necessary.

As your institution plans to invest in STEM programs, consider the cost/benefit ratio for your particular setting. Some schools have had to navigate these waters only to find costs were greater than expected (Catalanello, Solochek, & Ackerman, 2012). Seek counsel from those organizations that have gone through this process before and develop a clear plan to identify the goals of this investment. Determine the level of financial investment that is appropriate to the goals of the institution. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach.


STEM education isn’t the only game in town. Recently, in his Washington Post column, Fareed Zakaria even called current trends to emphasize STEM courses “dangerous” (Zakaria, 2015). Zakaria’s central point was that the elevation of STEM subjects over and against other disciplines leads to shortsightedness among students, if not their disenfranchisement for having other interests. An integrated approach to STEM education has been called for in order to develop a multidisciplinary approach to learning (Johnson, 2013). Educational planners must take care to avoid the over direction of resources to select fields of study.


While STEM fields are viewed as the principle sectors for job growth and international economic advantage, there is not a clear consensus on what methods, subjects, and criteria comprise STEM education (Brown, 2012). Courses in biology, chemistry, and physics will find a comfortable home within the STEM education classification; however, the evolution of technology and changes in the types of jobs in demand demonstrate that STEM is evolving and there is yet to be a comprehensive definition.

We must remember that STEM education is a trend, and, like all trends, it undergoes critique, evolution, and reinterpretation. Currently, there are several other STEM derivatives. STEAM education is a newer framework for teaching (Yakman, 2012). The ‘A’ in STEAM refers to ‘the arts’, as this approach integrates the arts—visual art, performance, music, etc.—within the STEM paradigm. Other spinoffs have sought to highlight ‘reading’ (R) to create STREAM education (Furman, 2014). Innovation and global competitiveness are not only driven by technology and engineering, but also by creativity, storytelling, design, and other skills. Perhaps if districts would wish to be on board with the most current trend in education, a facility investment should include appropriations for art and reading spaces.

These are just three things to think about when preparing to develop STEM programs and planning for the resultant facility adaptations that might be required. Keep in mind that a STEM investment must be thoughtful and goal-oriented; STEM courses are only one facet of education; and, the STEM trend today may not govern the education agenda of tomorrow.

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Brown, J. (2012). The Current Status of STEM Education Research. Journal of STEM Education: Innovations and Research, 13(5), 7–11.

Catalanello, R., Solochek, J. S., Ackerman, S. (2012). Bulking up STEM comes with a price tag, educators say. Retrieved from

Johnson, C. C. (2013). Conceptualizing Integrated STEM Education. School Science and Mathematics, 113(8), 367–368.

Furman, R. (2014). STEM Needs to Be Updated to STREAM. Retrieved from

Yakman, G. (2012). Recognizing the A in STEM Education. Middle Ground, 16(1), 15–16.

U.S. Department of Education. (n.d.). Science, Technology, Engineering and Math: Education for Global Leadership. Retrieved from

Zakaria, F. (2015). Why America’s obsession with STEM education is dangerous. The Washington Post. Retrieved from

T. R. Dunlap is a research assistant at George Washington University in the Education Facilities Clearinghouse. After having worked as a foreign language educator, he now researches topics relevant to education facilities and their improvements.

By E. M. Wallace, MPH, May 14, 2015.

I have lived in the world of acronyms most of my adult life. I added ‘IAQ’—short for ‘Indoor Air Quality’—to my vocabulary this past year. Good indoor air quality (IAQ) is considered an important component of safe, healthy, and productive school environments (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2009). In our work at the Education Facilities Clearinghouse (EFC), we collect and disseminate resources on safe and healthy education facilities, and I have been eager to learn more about IAQ in relation to school environmental health.

What is the significance of IAQ? ‘A’ is for air. People breathe air—regularly! That alone makes IAQ a pretty important topic. Most adults probably have a basic awareness that inhaling mold, mildew, asbestos, harsh chemicals, and other pollutants can have adverse health effects, especially for one’s respiratory system (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2009). Growing children with developing lungs are especially sensitive to toxic environmental pollutants (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region 8, 2014). School-based exposure to poor IAQ can interfere with a student’s ability to be present, ready, and able to learn (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2009). Asthma, headaches, lethargy, nausea, drowsiness, and dizziness can be distracting. Beyond producing acute symptoms and irritations, certain hazardous pollutants—referred to as ‘air toxics’—are known or suspected to cause cancer over time (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2012).

What can be done at schools to protect air quality? Many factors influence IAQ; let me draw attention to one in this blog. I was surprised to come across a study that referenced idling vehicles when searching for model practices for IAQ at schools. “What do vehicles have to do with indoor air quality?” I thought. “Vehicle emissions are linked to outdoor air pollution, aren’t they?” As I delved further into the topic, I learned that outdoor pollutants creep indoors via air flow through open doors, windows, air intake mechanisms, and ‘leaky’ building envelopes (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2009). It became apparent to me how the transportation dynamics surrounding the daily ritual of school dismissal set the stage for reduced outdoor and indoor air quality.

Young schoolchildren can’t legally drive (thankfully). Therefore, transporting children to school on school buses is a major logistical operation for many school districts. You’ve seen it: buses in queue, waiting for the final bell to ring and students to spill out of buildings and climb aboard. If engines are running, fuel is burned and diesel exhaust is emitted—whether the bus is moving or not. Idling buses produce concentrated levels of unhealthy exhaust, including pollutants such as benzene and formaldehyde (American Lung Association, Colorado, n.d.; Environmental Law Institute, 2013)

Buses aren’t the only vehicles idling at schools, however. Measurements at schools have shown spikes in concentrations of air toxics during the afternoon timeframe when parents come to pick up their children (Denver Department of Environmental Health, 2012; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region 8, 2014). Consider this claim: “Idling a vehicle for one minute produces more carbon monoxide than three packs of smoked cigarettes” (Denver Department of Environmental Health, 2012). This comparison provides some startling perspective when you imagine a tightly packed line of idling vehicles outside of a school building with engines running for 10, 20, or even 30 minutes.

Vehicle idling is largely unnecessary and is a behavior that can be modified with a combination of raising awareness, policy change, messaging, and enforcement (Denver Department of Environmental Health, 2012). The Environmental Law Institute tracks state laws and regulations on key school environmental health issues; more than 30 states are listed as having some form of state policy on vehicle idling at schools (Environmental Law Institute, n.d.).

Voluntary anti-idling (or reduced-idling) campaigns have been implemented with the goal to limit student exposure to toxic vehicle exhaust by lessening the frequency and duration of idling behavior (Denver Department of Environmental Health, 2012). Here are a few resources to explore for further information:

  • The Clean Air at Schools: Engines Off! (CASEO) program is an example of a collaborative anti-idling program that utilizes a social marketing approach (Denver Department of Environmental Health, 2012).
  • AirwatchNW offers a toolkit of downloadable and customizable resources for implementing idling reduction activities at schools (AirwatchNW, n.d.).
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website makes available a number of excellent resources related to anti-idling programs and related school bus diesel programs, emissions reductions, and clean fuels (

Raise your IAQ IQ and take action to address vehicle idling and other threats to air quality at schools!

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AirwatchNW. (n.d.). Anti-Idling Programs. Retrieved from

American Lung Association, Colorado. (n.d.) Clean Air at Schools: Engines Off! Retrieved from

Denver Department of Environmental Health. (2012). Clean Air at Schools: Engines Off, Model Practice. Retrieved from

Environmental Law Institute. (n.d.). Topics in School Environmental Health. Retrieved from

Environmental Law Institute. (2013). Vehicle Idling at Schools: Overview of State Laws. Retrieved from

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2009). Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools Action Kit. Retrieved from

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2012). About Air Toxics. Retrieved from

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region 8. (2014). Idle Free Schools Toolkit. Retrieved from

E. M. Wallace is a Research Associate with the Education Facilities Clearinghouse, a program of the George Washington University and the Graduate School of Education and Human Development. She has a background in community health education and enjoys cross-sector work that promotes child and family health and wellbeing.