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What does it do to kids when their school building screams, ‘Nothing important happens here’?

high school cafeteria
Kids are particularly susceptible to assigning things the value others appear to have placed on it.

Pardon Your Humble Blogger, but she feels a rant coming on. During my career I’ve had reason to visit a depressingly high number of prisons throughout this country and in the developing world.

It’s always a rattling experience for multiple reasons, not the least of which is the odd sensation of spending time in a space designed without even a passing nod toward human dignity, comfort or the wider world outside.

To get in and out of most, you pass through one set of security doors that must lock shut before the next can open. On one side, people matter. On the other, people matter only insofar as they are to be kept confined. 

Since school let out I’ve had occasion to visit several high schools located in tough inner-city neighborhoods to talk about the year that was and the years that will be — or years that might be if the Ebenezer Scrooges out there are visited by the Spirit of Even More Dickensian School Years to Come.

Dark, ugly and rundown

Without halls choked with kids passing from class to class, without slamming lockers and teachers lassoing miscreants, it’s painfully apparent that there are some high schools hereabouts that are stys. Dark, ugly, rundown stys.

Granted, in the summer the sad walls are stripped of student artwork, and custodial crews are less present. Still.

The problem, in my experience, does not extend to elementary schools, which tend to be small and cheerful. Nor are we talking about the age of the buildings. Over the years we’ve closed any number of old but lovely schools that had big windows and more intimate scales. 

Lost in a sprawling building the other day, I tried a door in desperation and ended up locked — literally — in a weedy courtyard. I kid you not, I called district HQ for help. In the next, I made a point of asking for an escort out.

“I know,” my teacher tour guide said as she helped me get out of the windowless labyrinth where she works. “It’s like a prison cafeteria.”

Actually worse

Honestly, Dear Reader, it was worse. Compounding the squalor, in this particular building each sad wing had its own particular stink, ranging from sewage to chemical vapors. Add to this a bizarre airplane engine hum that most certainly was not an air conditioning system — A/C would have mitigated the smells — and what you’ve got is a headache chamber.

Why does this matter? It matters because kids are particularly susceptible to assigning things the value others appear to have placed on it. What we’re communicating here is that they really don’t have much.

True story: Several years ago when St. Paul Public Schools revamped their food program, which is now very, very good, they held focus groups with kids. What they learned was that students perceived school lunch as artificial, the bottom of the food chain — quite literally.

The new food is better, but the culinary folks also go to pains to tell kids it’s better. Dishes have names, like on menus, and descriptions of tasty-sounding ingredients. St. Croix River Valley Honeycrisp apple sounds better than Fruit Cup, right?

These buildings scream, “Nothing important happens here — nothing worth spending on, or letting the sun shine in on.”

Noble efforts, ugly surroundings

Nor do they feel like dignified workplaces. Yet we expect teachers and paraprofessionals and instructional leaders to show up every day and emanate optimism, pride and confidence.

I don’t want to embarrass any of the educators I was calling on, because the stories in question are about noble and effective efforts and the subject of this rant is in no way their fault. This is not about the love or the dedication inside the decaying structures.

And I bet my bottom dollar if you ask them wouldn’t they like some new paint or nice new windows they’d say no thank you, but lower class sizes and a few extra-curriculars would be nice.

No, the faceless specter in this tale is going to rattle his chains and point his bony finger at  you and me, Chuckles. We’re to blame. We’ve given them all a bad case of financial Stockholm Syndrome.

Speaking of Scandinavia, have you seen pictures of Finland’s schools? Or for that matter, the headquarters of pretty much any Fortune 500 company? They believe environment matters.

Surely in this outcomes-focused era, when we are designing data systems linking everything from arts education to teacher training to student performance, someone can measure the correlation between productivity and pleasant surroundings. I mean, we know that when you tell students they matter, they achieve more.

The downside? We might have to find new jobs for some of those prison architects.  

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Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by Mark Thein on 07/02/2013 - 10:03 am.

    Headline incorrect?

    “What does it do to kids when school building screams, ‘Nothing important happens here’?”

    Good article but isn’t the headline missing a word?

    Shouldn’t there be an “a”, “the” or “their” between “when” and “school”?

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 07/02/2013 - 10:25 am.

    Long overdue

    This ought to be reprinted every 3 months or so for the next… however long it takes to change those sad and depressing environments. I’m a little skeptical that something so quaint as “shame” would have an effect on public officials, and the public itself, if either is still capable of shame in the first place, but nothing else appears to have worked.

    I worked in a high school designed in the 1950s, it was concrete block and linoleum floors, but it got fresh paint every year and the exterior was brick, and well-maintained. I also worked in a high school designed in the late 1960s. Some classrooms had clerestory windows, affording a view of a slice of the sky, and letting in at least some light, but most classrooms were windowless by design. The theory was that there would be fewer distractions. What saved the building from disaster was a concerted effort to use and maintain bright, primary colors and absolutely relentless maintenance, at least as far as appearance was concerned. A building without windows pretty much mandated a massive HVAC system, which never worked properly in the 25 years I was there, but at least annual efforts were made to try to correct flaws built in by the architects.

    Of COURSE surroundings matter, and even with “a” or “the” or “their” missing from the headline, the point being made is one that any thoughtful Fortune 500 executive would grant. As psychological studies have demonstrated repeatedly, perception IS reality in many ways, and the perception of far too many high schools is that they appear industrial at best, prison-like at worst.

  3. Submitted by Susan Herridge on 07/02/2013 - 11:59 am.

    excellent rant, Beth

    all too depressingly true, know as such by all that have spent time in our schools. Keep it up.

  4. Submitted by John Reinan on 07/02/2013 - 01:30 pm.

    So right

    You’ve hit on one of my longstanding peeves. Public buildings — not just schools, but also courthouses, post offices and others — no longer seem built to inspire any sense of grandeur or wonder. They’re boxes, designed to be constructed as cheaply as possible. Go into just about any small town in America — look at the courthouses, schools, post offices, armories, auditoriums and other buildings that were put up before World War II. They do give a sense of being something special. They say, this is a public building, and the public deserves something beautiful. This is yours.

  5. Submitted by Sue gunderson on 07/02/2013 - 01:44 pm.

    elementary schools

    I agree with your assessment of some of our urban schools but unfortunately, there are elementary schools that are dirty, smelly, moldy, mice infested, and generally depressing and not environments that say that we care about the children’s health, physical comfort, or general standard of cleanliness. Practices of wiping off shared computer terminals and other surfaces that many children sneeze and cough on are not even on the radar. The teacher’s lounge is small, dirty and contains three old, chipped tables to sit around on old uncomfortable chairs.
    The parents have offered to clean, make minor repairs, and paint but we are not allowed to do any of this because of union restrictions. So the District sits without enough money to fix the children’s physical environments to improve their health and general well being, the unions are holding on to the jobs that they have which are overextending the members who are still working, and the children go to school with the message in your headline.

  6. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 07/02/2013 - 02:56 pm.

    Research on school buildings & student achievement

    The National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, http://www.ncef.org/
    has a number of studies showing a relationship between school building and academic achievement.
    For a number of years, NCEF received federal funds to compile the information found on this website.

  7. Submitted by Joe Musich on 07/02/2013 - 03:00 pm.

    so a report on capital ….

    dollars available is in order ?

  8. Submitted by Marisa Gustafson on 07/02/2013 - 03:21 pm.

    Follow-up please

    Beth, this is another great piece. Thank you.

    One should also keep in mind that, as the author alludes to, this is not one or two buildings, but fairly common across all kinds of schools in many places.

    Glad to see you making great points about something that is far too often put on the back burner.

    Perhaps some follow-ups with photos? Not everyone that cares about education is physically connected to our schools– they might like to see what it’s like ‘on the inside.’

  9. Submitted by Jerilyn Jackson on 07/02/2013 - 04:46 pm.

    I’m always amazed, during and after school levy efforts, at the portion of the citizenry who decry new school buildings as being “Taj Mahals” if they are at all attractive. This is where our children spend a good portion of their day doing important work. They’re worth it!

  10. Submitted by Stan Hooper on 07/02/2013 - 11:50 pm.

    Will They Pay?

    Beth, I remember when one of our new school buildings had a grand opening for the community to view. Parents of the children who would be attending the school were walking through it with them. Some commented on the pleasant and cheery decor and appurtenances. But there was another faction there, a fairly large group of angered citizens who thought the building was an abomination, for the very reason that it was so attractive. Their words were shouted out at the gathering for introducing personnel. In effect, they were attacking the “fluff” that was entirely unnecessary for them; taxpayers had no intentions to pay for frills; schools with such frills were a burden on taxpayers’ precious moneys. “See if I ever vote again for a school building referendum!” one of them shouted out, and the group applauded the statement. They were good for their word. Our district was growing rapidly in student population, but the next referendum to accommodate the population increase was roundly defeated (nearly 70% no vote) by such taxpayers, and the one after that as well. Our community had become livid about “fluff.” Our new school buildings were among the least expensive of nearby districts. We made them look the best we could but kept to the basics, using paint and wall treatments that made the buildings look the best we could manage but that were in reality subtle facades. Still, it was too much fluff. That’s why schools and public buildings look as they do. We couldn’t mollify the naysaying taxpayers who assured us that aesthetic treatments were abhorrent and entirely unnecessary, even in the late 20th Century. Our next buildings, by their demand, were much more spartan.

  11. Submitted by Susan McNerney on 07/03/2013 - 08:44 am.

    One thing to keep in mind

    is that for a significant portion of our population, a run-down public building isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. They hope that people will stop supporting these institutions altogether because they never supported them to begin with. Decay like this is more than pure neglect, or “tragedy of the commons”. It’s the intentional result of a political conflict.

  12. Submitted by Cathy Erickson on 07/03/2013 - 08:47 am.

    How do we fix it?

    As I pondered the challenges in providing improved school buildings, I kept coming back to mindset, equity, geography, and responsibility.

    Stan Hooper’s story above is a great example of how mindset can cloud vision and judgment. “Well I never needed that and look how I turned out” is what I hear when folks are upset about things like “fluff”. I wonder, is it jealousy? Is it greed? Is it lack of trust in the system? Sadly, this mindset is all over the state and probably the country. We’re supposed to all be in this together as a community, but as soon as some sacrifice and investment is required it can become “us vs. them”.

    Our state constitution says that it’s our obligation to provide free education to all children, but when things like funding school buildings is based on taxing only within district boundaries, we know that the varying wealth, average age, and economic stability of each district impacts whether or not districts will have access to funds to provide a better educational environment. It’s hard not to be jealous of the districts that consistently vote yes for new buildings or operating referendums. But if you’re up against a majority population that doesn’t have children in school or has a lower than average salary, how do you get that buy-in to invest already limited resources? Even if it’s an unfair question, districts are constantly being asked “What’s in it for me” from their voters, and if they don’t have an answer the voters want to hear, they’re probably not going to get a yes vote.

    The make up of the districts across the state also impacts what we need to provide. In 2012, there were just over 782,000 pupils (ADM’s) enrolled in Minnesota. There were 14 districts out of 336 – not including charter schools) that had enrollment over 10,000 and between them they had over 34% of total students (267,000). When you start at the smallest districts and go up – it took 168 districts to just to 10% (approx. 78,000 students)…there are 185 districts with less than 1,000 students. Can we really provide equally for districts with 200 students vs. 2,000? Or 10 square miles vs. 1,000 square miles? I truly applaud our legislators and Dept. of Education staff who have over the years attempted to “equalize” revenues in attempts to provide fiscal fairness – but the battle rages on and I think the only agreement we can come to is that no district is getting all that they need. So if the alternative is then going to your local tax base to try to collect more we circle back around to “what’s in it for me” and the debate begins again.

    And finally (I’m almost done!), I think that responsibility in providing education is becoming such a monumental task that it’s easier to put the blinders on than it is to look at all that still needs to be improved and accomplished. And we haven’t even scratched the surface of 2 other major funding areas in schools that could use some more money – staff and technology upgrades – this article just talked about buildings, and we already know we don’t have enough funding for that. We hear “accountability” all the time, but if there is no support (financially or otherwise) how do we expect things to improve?

    For many, and I know I’ve been guilty of this myself at times, it’s usually easier to play the “blame game” than it is to step up and say I’m ready to roll up my sleeves (and open up my bank account) to help. And honestly, I think part of it is because there is a belief that someone else (the state I guess) should be paying for education. WE pay taxes, WE donate to sports programs or fine arts, or buy (fill in the blank – pies, candy, plants, etc) in fundraisers – we do our part to support schools already! Why should we have to invest more?

    Until we contemplate these questions and decide (maybe at the state level?) how to do better, I’m not sure we’ll ever move beyond our current situation in what anyone thinks is a fair manner.

  13. Submitted by Beth Hawkins on 07/03/2013 - 10:52 am.


    You’re absolutely right, which is why I said the finger should be pointed at us. If you ask teachers whether they want nice environs they will instead present you with their wish list for their kids. Why can’t they have both? Why have we gotten so far away from calculating and funding the cost of a good and equitable education that we think we can only have one or the other? Those Finnish schools are like temples–they showcase that society’s priorities and values.   

  14. Submitted by Ross Reishus on 07/05/2013 - 09:41 pm.

    all too true

    Yes, schools should have nice spaces and adequate supplies and good teacher/student ratios. Both of the buildings I work in have undergone some renovations in the past 5 years both major and minor in their impact. But the first thing I’ve noticed, and confirmed it with custodians: A nicer building = most students take better care of it. A lot less random trash, gum wrappers, etc in the halls and the bathrooms don’t get abused as much. Less writing on the walls too. School pride is hard to have in a cave. The reality many districts know all too well is that a lot of school boards are filled with “well it was good enough when I went there” folks. Luckily that is not the case where I work. Good article. Thank you.

  15. Submitted by Randall Ryder on 07/06/2013 - 11:52 am.

    Off the Mark

    This article seems to wander around a number of important issues related to school climate. First, we know that schools that are clean,well maintained, and present a pleasant physical environment so make a difference in student learning. The school need not be state of the art to be successful. Second, I am not certain how comparisons with prisons got into this article, but once simply cannot compare prisons with schools. And why would you? Prisons and schools have totally distinct designs, populations, aesthetics, and staffing. A third point related to the assumption that newer more expensive school facilities will enhance learning. It is simply not the case. Students will learn if they have a clean, safe environment, well structured curriculum, caring and insightful staff, and supportive learning environments. Can a prison have that?

    • Submitted by Anita Newhouse on 07/09/2013 - 11:56 pm.


      Because I’ve had experience working and /or volunteering in both local high schools and in a few prisons and I can tell you that I’ve had the same visceral response in both environments: that feeling of walls closing in while the bad lighting, that also usually buzzes slightly, makes you round your shoulders as a self defense stance……….the either terribly muffled sound of footsteps and movements due to the crappy carpeted, low ceiling-ed, tubular corridors OR the echo of every sound bouncing off the massive concrete expanses, so no actual voice or sound is entirely distinguishable or distinct. The difference to me was the staff (working to keep um in or to keep um out) and the occupants: students looking for affirmation and guidance in building their vision of future pursuits vs. prisoners whose either lack of their own vision or the skills to know that they should have a vision and goals to build a life brought them to such an icky place.

      At the very least, if districts still insist on running schools using a business model, as if parents are ‘customers’ (and students are ‘products’??), then why would people want to send their kids to a dump? Why is it okay to shop at a nice mall and send your kids to a dump to learn?

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