MY VIEW • Proposal expected to do more than just fix buildings
by: Christopher Onstott, At Rigler K-8 School in Northeast Portland, overcrowding has Michelle Hellman using a file cabinet in the teacher's bathroom. The school board is considering a $548 million bond measure for Portland Public Schools to repair, build or modernize every school in the district.

Everyday across Portland Public Schools, our aging and deteriorating classrooms pose barriers that hamper teaching and learning, and keep educators and students from doing their best work.

That's why I recently proposed a school modernization plan that will bring needed educational, safety and security upgrades to all our schools, in every part of the city, with an initial phase of improvements and rebuilding that would be carried out over the next six years, and additional work to follow (see 'School bond battle takes shape,' Nov. 18). This plan would update science and computer labs, upgrade teaching technology and renovate learning spaces, so our students will be better prepared for college or to go into a rewarding career.

The primary reason to launch this effort is because modernized classrooms contribute to better student achievement results.

If a school's facilities improved from 'poor' to 'excellent,' a Georgetown University study found that student test scores rose 10 percent, even after controlling other factors such as family income.

This study is consistent with results seen in schools across the nation, where researchers have found 5 percent to 20 percent academic gains for students learning in modern, well-designed classrooms. Modernized schools also improve student motivation and teacher morale, and reduce behavioral problems.

From Seattle to our suburbs, students across the region are already able to take advantage of modernized learning environments, featuring up-to-date science labs, media centers and well-lighted, inviting classrooms.

Our students learn in outdated classrooms that simply cannot compete with learning environments in other communities. Portland has built two schools in the past 30 years and our buildings are, on average, more than a decade older than the typical American school.

Here are a few examples of the impact our obsolete buildings have on classroom learning for our students and teachers, and how the school modernization plan will address these barriers:

• In a computer lab at Cleveland High School, 10 to 15 minutes of precious learning time is lost because the school's out-of-date wiring slows the time it takes for the machines to boot up and connect to the network. Upgrades at all high schools - not just ones slated for rebuilding - will allow schools the ability to better deliver the core high school program.

• At Sunnyside Environmental School, there is no water in the room that students use as a science lab, which makes it impossible for them to perform most experiments. Instead, science teacher Ginny Stern fills water pitchers in a bathroom and carts them to her class, taking time away from lesson planning and preparation so her students can at least conduct basic experiments. We will overhaul science labs at Sunnyside and 36 other schools, installing up-to-date fixtures and technology so students can experiment and learn without the limitations imposed by their buildings.

• At Hayhurst K-5, teachers struggle to provide safe, engaging physical activity outside of gym periods during Portland's cold and rainy months, because their school lacks a covered play area. Covered play areas at Hayhurst and 32 other schools would allow students to exercise all year round, stimulating not just their bodies, but their brains as well.

These aren't the only problems our obsolete buildings pose for teachers and students. Our schools offer few spaces that are configured to encourage teachers to work together on instructional strategies and lesson plans - this kind of collaboration has been the catalyst for dramatically improved student achievement at schools in Portland and across the nation.

Volunteer tutors and mentors help students daily - but in many schools they must try to find a quiet space in a hallway or in a converted store room, because there is no other place for them to work.

Today too many Portland students sit in crowded, leaky or cold classrooms, struggling to learn in the face of physical discomfort. Our schools also lack up-to-date fire alarms, security systems, and other safety features of modernized schools.

By upgrading and improving schools, educators and students can stay focused on what counts most - effective teaching and learning - instead of worrying about rainwater dripping on desks, or other basic health and safety concerns.

However, modernized, safer schools can not only enhance the quality of education in our classrooms, they can also spur a cascade of benefits that help our entire community. According to a new study by the economics research firm ECONorthwest, this proposed school modernization plan would create a net total of 2,594 full- and part-time local jobs and infuse a net $221 million of increased personal income into our community.

We know from the experience of other school districts that up-to-date schools also tend to attract greater enrollment, meaning more families will choose to live in Portland. In turn, that fosters stronger and healthier neighborhoods. In the long term, well-educated students who graduate prepared for the demands of today's careers will contribute to a thriving local economy, and bring more opportunity to our city.

Bottom line: modernized schools are good for students and teachers. In the end, they're good for all of us, whether we are a parent, a neighbor or an employer.

Carole Smith is superintendent of Portland Public Schools.

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