Column

Why aren’t schools in poor communities built to meet local students’ needs?

Dilapidated schools are about neglected communities, not poor construction

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Degree of  Interest

Building a school just for academic security is like building a home just to keep dry from rainstorms. Such thinking on school construction minimizes the opportunities to ameliorate the conditions that make life hard.

In places like New Orleans, schooling isn’t the only inequality leaving students and their families out in the rain. The lack of quality jobs, transportation, recreational facilities and safe neighborhoods keeps families and their children in poverty.

The construction of a school presents opportunities that extend beyond what eventually is taught in a classroom. How and where a school is built matters.

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Last month I spoke at two separate architecture conferences. The National Organization of Minority Architects Annual Conference and The Education Market Association’s EdSpaces Conference, which focuses on sustainable design on environmental impact on learning. To be sustainable, schools must look at the here and now; we throw the phrase “21st century schools” around like a football, and we look beyond the people calling for the ball. Students and families need school construction projects to respond to their neighborhoods in the immediate and distant futures.

Yes, schools should prepare students for the unforeseen world that’s ahead of them. But if learners aren’t prepared for what’s in front of their faces, then we’re missing the point. What does a Common Core curriculum mean to students at risk of being shot? In cities like New Orleans, in which one in seven black men are in prison or on parole, street law should be required alongside civics. The breaches in the levees already made the argument for me that New Orleans needs competent engineers who are committed to protecting the most vulnerable residents.

Seriously, New Orleans schools should produce more architects and engineers than any other city.

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Likewise, in a city in which only 57 percent of black men are employed, how can we not build specifically with black labor?

Job training programs have to be part of districts’ overall master plan. Training a workforce that has been ostracized, jailed and undereducated certainly takes longer, costs more and requires a different kind of management. But isn’t that education? The amount of money and resources that go into a school construction project has to enrich the community that needs it the most.

After the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans negotiated approximately $2 billion to refurbish, construct and demolish its schools. But how was it leveraged? Projects across the country have to account for the social costs of not fully incorporating the hands and minds of the school’s neighbors.

At the conferences, many designers talked to me about furniture, natural light, energy conservation and science labs and wiring without a corresponding talk about culture. You might as well design schools from the North Pole if you’re not incorporating the immediate needs and wants of people who live near the school.

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Schools can be too big, too small, or too ugly when speed and efficiency are valued over people’s needs. Listening to what families, school leaders and students think actually leads to better designs. Buildings that realize a designer or a district leader’s dream are made conspicuous from the absence of a neighborhood’s history, wishes and needs.

We all know the adage “time is money.” But poor folk have less time and money, so we must also focus on building quality neighborhood schools. Poor students are spending too much time on buses and on tests that won’t pay them. In many cities, school playgrounds are locked up when after school. Curfews target youth who apparently have nothing to do.

Particularly in low-income areas, students should be able to walk or bike to school. Families shouldn’t have to wait for neighborhoods to gentrify to get adequate bike and walking lanes. Academic preparation starts with empowering students to live with their own neighborhoods. To steal a line from a famous song, “If I can make it there, you know I’m gonna make it just about anywhere.” Students must master their environment because place matters.

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For instance, in New Orleans, crime, unemployment, poverty and limited educational opportunities burden too many residents. Heart disease mortality in the poorest zip code in the city is almost five times higher than the next highest rate in the city. Overall life expectancy for New Orleanians varies by as much as 25 years depending on the zip code. And living just a few miles apart in Baltimore makes the difference in as much as 30 years of life.

Given the lack of opportunity and control blacks have in many cities, schools should be designed to help students claim and build up their own communities – literally. Give students the ability to solve the world immediately around them.

The National Organization of Minority Architects’ (NOMA) champions diversity in the design profession. The organization also aims to increase the number of black and brown designers by addressing discrimination in and out of the field. Urban districts can use every school construction project to share NOMA’s mission, but it requires districts to consider who will be using the schools once they are built.

If schools were really built to respond to the local needs of students, we would be working to eliminate busing along with suspension and expulsion. Schools and school playgrounds would stay open longer. College scholarships would be place-based, and New Orleans would produce the highest percentage of black architects and engineers in the country.

New schools quickly look like the families and neighborhoods they serve. Sustainability is about flesh and blood not bricks and mortar. Dilapidated schools are typically not about poor construction; they’re about neglected communities.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more columns by Andre Perry.

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Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at… See Archive

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