When is a building not a building?
When it's a school.
How many times have you walked through your child's school and noticed the quality of light? How about the quality of air or sound in the classroom? Is a school just another type of warehouse boarding our children for six hours a day? When we think of our schools, do we envision an environment that supports academics, stimulates our children and actually enhances learning? If not then WHY NOT?
In 1999 the Heschong Mahone Group published their, now famous, Daylighting in Schools; An investigation into the Relationship Between Daylighting and Human Performance. They found that the amount of natural day light (Daylighting) in a classroom effected the performance of students, the attitude toward their school and the absenteeism rates of the teachers. Maybe not earth shattering if you stop and think of it now, but in August of 1999 this was vindicating for many school planners. Remember, we had come out of a decade where we thought that we could eliminate almost all windows from a classroom and save on energy costs.
According to a research study by the Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS):
Students in classrooms optimally designed for "daylighting progressed 20% faster on math tests and 26% faster on reading tests in one year than those with the least amount of daylight."
And that's just daylighting.
What about air quality, classroom acoustics, furniture ergonomics? And all of this before we even get to new computers or new band uniforms. For the better part of 30 years, I have worked as a school planner, architect, developer, teacher and builder with the conviction that better learning environments can actually effect students in a positive way. A couple of years ago the TV show Heroes had all the buzz with the catch phrase;"save the cheerleader, save the world". I am a firm believer of the premise;"save the classroom, save a child".
Tonight, a new NBC series called "School Pride" debuts that follows students, teachers, parents and a SWAT team of organizers as they renovate aging and broken public schools. This is a "makeover" show with a difference.
Like many people, I have found myself sucked into those home improvement shows, where the kids swing open the door to their old room to see that bed that looks like a car that can transform into a boat.
Or the parents, stepping into that luxurious spa of a bathroom that is all theirs. Probably in the back of my mind I was really picturing all that happening to me. What if an army of workers were to descend onto my house, rip out that ugly laundry room, and blow out that wall confining my master bedroom? Or take the roof off and add a second floor with a balcony and a waterfall. I know that my attraction to these shows is a personal projection of my selfish desire to live in a grander house.
But what if there was a reality TV show that allowed a community to project their desires on to a project that resulted in a grander community asset?
Think of that favorite room in your house, the one that has the nicest light, with the most comfortable chair, the warmest, the coolest. Now think of your neighborhood school and picture these same desirable qualities overlaid on those educational spaces. Think of classrooms with quality light, stable and supportive furniture, clean, tempered air and imagine the effect on those students.
A theme of "School Pride" is that you can not only affect your environment but you can also affect your attitude about your surroundings. I can't overstate how important this can be.
A number of years ago I was working for a mid-Atlantic urban school district. Many of their school facilities had deteriorated so much that they had to ask parents to encourage their children to use the bathroom at home before school, because the school did not have enough working toilets.
What message did that convey to these students? What value did we place on them and their fellow students? Why should they respect the building, their teachers, each other if we did not respect them enough to allow them the most basic of necessities?
The premise that involving someone in the restoration and revitalization of their school building involves them in similar, personal transformation is a powerful one. From what I've seen of "School Pride," the producers of the show get this point and know how to show it.
In one clip, a student at Enterprise Middle School in Compton, Calif., says of his decrepit surroundings:
"Enterprise is like prison. It makes me angry, and sad."
Of course, it takes more than 10 days of a television show's efforts to renovate our most seriously decaying schools--but what "School Pride" can accomplish is helping viewers understand the living, enduring impact of the halls, walls and rooms our kids call home six hours a day, five days a week.
I fully expect that as I watch "School Pride" I will tear up when those students swing open the door to their old classroom to see their desks bathed in natural light and washed in clean fresh air. Or the teacher, who has trudged for years into a dirty, run-down building, walk into a modern computer room with wireless Internet and comfortable, welcoming work spaces.
Now, that's "reality TV" I want to see!
And you know what? I like my house just fine but now that I think about it, my local school can use a makeover.