By Angel Ford, October 30, 2014.

Imagine you are a student walking into a building that you are forced to go to everyday to sit in a humid classroom that smells bad because the ceiling leaks and the air conditioning unit is not functional, with desks crammed so closely together that you feel the body heat of the person sitting next to you.  Imagine that your teacher is standing at the front of the room for an hour or more droning on, at times loudly because she is speaking over hallway noises as classroom doors are left open to increase airflow.

The teacher is telling you about new science innovations and advanced devices that are changing the world in which we live.  You hear bits and pieces, but are not making sense of what she is saying.  You would rather be at home surfing the Internet for the tablet and cell phone you want for Christmas.  You would rather be just about anywhere.

For a moment now, switch places and imagine you are the teacher in this same classroom and your desire is to get the students excited about technology; to tell them about the latest and greatest devices.  You know that many of these students have the devices you are teaching them about, some even have them in their pockets right now.  Last night you read an article about the importance of technology integration for your millennial students.  You learned that teachers in a different school in your same city are in a new building where the students don’t just hear about technology, they experience it through access to computers, tablets, the most updated software, and even a new 3D printer.

You feel bad for your students, but you don’t know what to do. Just adding the technology to this classroom would not help.  There is no room for computers and with the leaks in the ceiling how could you ensure electronics wouldn’t be damaged anyway?   A cough from one of your asthmatic students pulls you out of your internal pity party and you take a deep breath and go on with your lesson plans.  Frustrated and Defeated.

This may seem like an extreme case, but it may not be too far off for certain students and teachers.

With all the evidence about the importance of the physical learning environment, it is critical to consider the perspectives of those that are affected every day with substandard educational facilities and, yet, are still expected to learn or to teach.  Students in such buildings may dislike school and not be excited about learning.  Teachers in such schools may be frustrated with feeling they cannot provide engaging lessons for their 21st century learners.

There may not be easy solutions to fix the many schools in our nation that need fixing, but the evidence shows that the physical buildings do affect learning (Earthman & Lemasters, 2011) and that an overwhelming number of schools in our nation need facility improvements (“PK-12 Public School,” 2011).

Public education in America is available to all students; however, the equity of education facilities is in question (Uline, Wolsey, Tschannen-Moran, & Lin, 2010).   “A student may assume the faculty and staff of a poorly maintained building will accept or expect a lower standard of behavior and a lesser effort in academic achievement.” (Cash, 1993, p. 1).   These may not be the expectations; however, the perception of students becomes the reality in which they make decisions about their effort, achievement, and behavior.  The frustration caused by this perception affects both teachers and administrators.  This could directly cause educators to leave substandard schools at a higher rate and add increases in educator turnover to poor facilities.

In order to empower teachers to provide 21st century learning, the physical environments need to be seen as part of the plan to create school equality.  Some schools need to be completely rebuilt; some need thorough renovations, and others could benefit from quick, easy, and inexpensive improvements.  The Education Facilities Clearinghouse provides research based technical assistance to school administrators and school facility managers, who are interested in improving their facilities to meet the needs of their students.

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Cash, C. (1993). Building Condition and Student Achievement and Behavior.(Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Blacksburg, VA.

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.

PK-12 Public School Facility Infrastructure Fact Sheet.  21st Century School Fund (February, 2011).

Uline, C. L., Wolsey, T. D., Tschannen-Moran, M., & Lin, C. D. (2010). Improving the physical and social environment of school: A question of equity. Journal of school leadership, 20(5), 597-632.

Angel Ford is a research assistant with Education Facilities Clearinghouse, where she is actively involved research and content management of the EFC Website.  She is also currently pursuing her Doctorate in Education with her intended dissertation topic to be in the area of educational facilities.

By Helen Janc Malone & Reuben Jacobson, September 8, 2014.

School buildings communicate important messages to our children, their families, the community, and the educators and personnel that work there. A school’s physical appearance speaks to people about the value our society places on education and on the role of the school in the community. Too often, our urban school facilities send the wrong messages.

However, in communities with scarce resources, school facilities can play a particularly vital role. We call them community schools. They:

  • create a safe and supportive school culture and a climate for learning in the school and community;
  • develop engaging learning experiences inside and outside the classroom that enable students to prepare for college, career, and life;
  • ensure that young people have the opportunities and supports that every family seeks for their children—mentoring, after school and summer activities, arts and cultural events, health and mental health services, nutritious meals, and more;
  • engage families and communities in problem-solving of pressing community issues; and
  • build social capital—the networks and relationships so critical to helping young people develop the ‘agency’ they need to face life’s challenges and become productive workers and citizens.

Community schools bring the assets of the community into the school facility. Depending on the local context, community schools might house a library, a career center, doctors, dentists, social services, recreational spaces, or after school and weekend programs. In a community school, families, educators, and communities are equal decision-makers. When the design of school space is built on community input, and includes services and activities that young people, families, and communities need, the community school becomes a vibrant resource for all.

There is a long history of seeing school buildings as centers of communities. In the early 1900s John Dewey, the famous Progressive educator, wrote about schools as social centers. He envisioned schools as a gathering place for people to learn from one another and throughout their lives regardless of age. That ideal continues today and is manifested best when school buildings become community schools.

As Secretary Arne Duncan noted: "I'd like to see public schools open 12, 13, 14 hours a day, year-round, offering not just mentoring and tutoring programs but art, chess, family literacy nights, debate teams, and GED and ESL programs for parents. It doesn't have to be that expensive to keep schools open longer. In every school you have classrooms, computer labs, libraries, and gyms. Rent the school out for free from 3:00 to 9:00 PM to great non-profit partners like the YMCA's, the Boys and Girls Club, college-readiness programs, and other enrichment activities. It is a tremendous waste of resources that schools aren't doing more to serve as one-stop community centers."

Cincinnati Community Learning Centers

Many school districts and communities are using the school building to transform communities. Cincinnati’s community schools, called Community Learning Centers (CLCs), illustrate how school and community leaders leveraged new funding for school construction to engage the community and to promote fairness and opportunity.

In 1999, Cincinnati Public Schools Facility Master Plan invested $1 billion to rebuild its public schools and turn them into community hubs, with resources and opportunities for all. Central to the district’s effort was to engage each neighborhood in a conversation about what they wanted their schools to look like. The conversation led to schools co-located community partners that promote academic excellence and provide recreational, educational, social, health, civic, and cultural opportunities for students, their families, and the community. And in several cases schools became K-12 facilities in response to a community demand.

How did this happen? Each school community decided which opportunities and supports they wanted based on local needs and assets. For example, when a community identified access to health care as a critical need, the CLC was designed to house a health clinic. When another community needed high quality early childhood opportunities, planners incorporated space for an early childhood center.

What results do we see from Cincinnati’s facilities plan and community engagement? The school board has made all schools CLCs, Cincinnati students have demonstrated significant academic improvement, neighborhoods are being revitalized and more families are moving back to the city. And there are myriad of strong partnerships with community groups, business, and others that are all working inside school buildings to create places were all children and families succeed.

An emerging example of a substantial investment in school facilities come from Baltimore. The State of Maryland has recently passed a $1 billion facilities plan to revitalize Baltimore’s public school buildings. As Michael Sarbanes, former Baltimore City Schools’ Executive Director of Engagement, stated, “…this work is based on the belief that schools are an anchor in the community and the schools should be an asset for community life where they’re located.”

School Facility as a Community School

So what are school facilities like around the country and what vision can we create for better school facilities that encourage better learning? A recent report, the Condition of America’s Public School Facilities: 2012 –13, states that over half of our public schools require “repairs, renovations, and modernizations to put the school’s onsite buildings in good overall condition.” The report estimates that it will require $197 billion, or $4.5 million per school to revitalize our schools.

Policymakers responsible for funding repairs to existing buildings or for funding new facilities should keep two things in mind:

  1. Robust citizen participation in the planning process is essential to designing schools that are deeply rooted in community and responsive to its needs;
  2. The way we design schools is a key factor in mobilizing the entire community to support young people.

Using the school facility as a community school is the way to achieve our ideals of the school as a social center, a place that values learning at all ages, and that creates equitable opportunities for all.

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Dr. Helen Janc Malone
Director of Institutional Advancement
National Director, Education Policy Fellowship Program

Reuben Jacobson
Senior Associate for Research and Strategy, Coalition for Community Schools

By Dr. Linda Lemasters

August 22, 2014. 

Scholars have researched the question for nearly a century:  Do facilities affect student outcomes and teacher instruction?  To respond to that question, the next three Bricks and Mortar BLOGS will address (a) the importance of school facilities for our nation, (b) best practices in school facilities, and (c) the impact of school facilities on the learner.  Knowledge of the three is intricately related.

We all know where the schools in our community are; most of us give little thought as we drive by them every day as to the size of their acreage, the amount of square feet under roof, the incredible amount of money to make the fields and buildings available to students, as well as community activities.  Are there any other governmental functions, other than schools, that require such a huge expanse of real estate?

A few years ago the 21st Century School Fund shared a fact sheet with general composite information about school facility infrastructure (2011).  Although I have worked with school facilities for over two decades, I had no idea of the magnitude of our national school resources.  The facts are:  there are nearly 100,000 preK-12 public schools, which over 55 million school-age children attend, and over 6.6 billion gross square footage of building space and 1 million acres of site area.  The public investment is well worth discussion by educators.  If we add this information to a more recent survey from the United States Department of Education via the National Center for Education Statistics (2014) on facilities, the facts are more startling.  Of the 1800 schools surveyed, billions of dollars are needed for renovations and repairs, averaging $4.5 million per school.  Even with only a small portion of our total 100,000 public schools having the same needs, there is a crisis in the public schools our children attend.

Another area we often overlook is the funding needed for operating our school buildings.  Utilities alone cost localities nearly $9.5 billion dollars a year—fluctuating with the weather.  Knowing that these costs fall totally to the localities, along with the majority of other upkeep expenses in most states, should make us attentive to the scope of the influence of facilities on our localities and states.  In addition, personnel for schools take 60-80% of local budgets.

What are the implications for our students and teachers—and for communities?   Most frequently, the needed maintenance, retrofits and renovations entail HVAC, replacing ineffective windows and doors, upgrading classroom lighting, and replacing leaking roofs.  We all need fresh air, especially children, yet many of the old HVAC systems do not provide the proper ventilation; some do not maintain a thermal environment to enable students to focus on their work; and/or, the health related problems with respiratory illnesses keep children and teachers home from school.  Poor classroom lighting has its on own effects on children’s eyes, health, and mood.  Leaky roofs can exacerbate mold, mildew, and destroy computers, furniture, and flooring.  Even with such an incomplete list, we can exhibit and the research supports how needed maintenance affects safety, health, capital resource damage, and budgets.  Nearly all of these retrofits and renovations can save energy and thus money—money that can be used for instruction.

Part of the mission of the Education Facilities Clearinghouse is to call to the attention of educators and policy makers the magnitude of importance of  school facilities on our localities and states.  Our school buildings and grounds and their impact on all of us are multi-dimensional and more important than most people realize.


Condition of America’s Public School Facilities: 2012-13.  U.S. Department of Education, NCES, Report 2014-022 (March 2014).

PK-12 Public School Facility Infrastructure Fact Sheet.  21st Century School Fund (February, 2011).

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.

Printable Version of The Importance of School Facilities

By Dr. Linda Lemasters, June 30, 2014.

There is never a week that passes that I don’t see beautiful, well built, and inviting schools. Some are simply pictures; some are along the roads I travel. At the same time, there is rarely a week that I don’t see, read about, drive by schools that are less than inviting and are unappealing. It is always said that it does not matter where children learn: in a one-room schoolhouse, out of doors, rooms with peeling paint, or places that are not clean and have musty smells. Sometimes I believe this is a “cop out.” The person making those comments not only has not realized the importance of the places where children learn; but also never has visited any of the devastating facilities.

My first thoughts always turn to where the unattended buildings are located. Is this the place the mayor’s children go to school? Do children in the gated communities . . . in beautifully developed suburbs feed into these schools? The geographic area is more likely to be rural, inner city, or on the other side of the railroad tracks. The bigger question, however, is there a difference in student achievement in the very different school settings? 

When discussing educational reform, we rarely have such conversations without the phrase “achievement gap” being mentioned. Over all we have not succeeded as a society in eradicating the gap and along the way, have failed taxpayers and students. Since 2002, tax-payers have funded $4.4 billion in federal support of state developed achievement testing for grades three through eighth (Levine & Levine, 2013). Further, the Brookings Institute estimates states have funded $1.7 billion annually on achievement testing (Chingos, 2012). Taxpayers, also, fund approximately $129.6 million a year on NAEP for the Nation’s Report Card as a means to crosscheck state achievement testing. In return for funding, taxpayers have gotten little in return (Levine & Levine, 2013). For example, the recent November 7, 2013 NAEP Report, considered the “gold standard” in test score reporting, once again demonstrated there is a “lack of progress closing the racial and ethnic disparities in the test results” (NAEP, 2013; Ravitch, 2010, p. 2). Since the last testing cycle of NAEP in 2011, eighth grade math scores have risen one point and reading has risen eight points (NAEP, 2013). For black eighth graders math scores did not change significantly, while Hispanic scores rose two points. In reading, black scores rose two points, while Hispanic scores rose three points.

According to Kober (2001), there are no simplistic explanations for the differences in racial and ethnic performances, and there is inadequate information on factors that may affect the gap. To some the roots of the gap are beyond the reach of educators and reside in economic and social challenges that minority students face (Evans, 2005). To others education is a simple production function input output relationship, yet the goal of universal outcome criteria treats the symptom not the problem (Smillov, 2013). Improving reading and math test scores only treats “meager symptoms of a very complex problem” in a limited way and requires a holistic approach (Francis, 2013).

With the complicated issues surrounding the achievement gap, what are some facts that we do know? While the research findings are mixed, Bowers and Urick (2011) said, 

. . . if we take the mediated effects approach, it may be that actual facility quality, be it structural or maintenance, directly effects educator’s perceptions of their facilities that then influences the overall academic and motivational climate of the school, which then influences student achievement up or down. (p. 1)

So the next time you hear the term “achievement gap,” ask yourself where do these children go to school. Is their school in an environment that appears safe, warm, and inviting? Is it clean inside with air conditioning and proper furniture, free from respiratory hazards, and capable of supporting effective technology? While the gap is complicated, perhaps systemic in nature, and cannot be fixed easily, we have the capacity and ability to improve the places where students learn and teachers teach. Thus, the mission of the Education Facilities Clearinghouse: Improving the places where children learn.

This is our first Bricks and Mortar Blog. We invite you to comment and watch for the next column. We also will invite guests to join us; be sure to check in to see who they are. The EFC ( invites you to join us on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.


Bowers, A. J., & Urick, A. (2011) Does High School Facility Quality Affect Student Achievement? A 2-Level Hierarchical Lin-ear Model. Journal of Education Finance, 37(1), 72-94.

Chingos, M. (2012). Strength in numbers state spending on K-12 assessment systems Brown Center on education policy as Brookings (pp. 1-41). Brookings Institute: Brookings Institute.

Evans, R. (2005). Reframing the achievement gap. Phi Delta Kappan, 86, 582-589.

France, J. (2013). Low test scores are the symptom, not the disease. Retrieved from

Kober, N. (2001). It takes more than testing closing the achievement gap (pp. 1-47). Washington, DC: Center on Education Policy.

Levine, M., & Levin, A. (2013). Education reform movement has been a costly failure, The Buffalo News.

NAEP (2013). The Nation's Report Card. 2013 Math and Reading. Washington, DC: National Center for Educational Statistics.

Ravitch, D. (2010). The death and life of the great American school system how testing and choice are undermining education. New York, NY: Perseus.

Smillov, M. (2013). Common Core: Reinforcing failure. American Thinker. Retrieved from

Linda Lemasters, Director, Education Facilities Clearinghouse (Liz Johnson, GWU EdD student contributed to the research) 

Linda is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education and Human Development of The George Washington University, where she directs the educational administration and policy studies program, 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, to be published July, 2014 in Marketing the Green School: Form, Function, and the Future.

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