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Getting involved: fixing school buildings

Community can play a role in capital improvement planning

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

In Chicago, an organization called the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group (NCBG) has assisted parents and community members in advocating for capital improvements to their schools and for the creation of new schools that best meet the community’s needs. In 1996, under the leadership of CEO Paul Vallas, the Chicago Public Schools launched a large scale Capital Improvement Plan similar to the plan currently starting up in Philadelphia.

"The community should have a say in how a new school is designed," says Andrea Lee, Schools Initiative Coordinator at NCBG. "This means bringing stakeholders together to talk about the design of schools and to begin to talk about their vision of the school’s role in the community."

"Our public officials come and go," Lee adds, "but our community is here for decades, and that’s why we think it’s important for them to be involved in curriculum, design, and planning."

The following is an excerpt from From the Ground Up: A handbook for organizing for capital improvements to your public schools, NCBG’s guide for how parents and community members can advocate for capital improvement plans at their schools. This excerpt offers advice for how parents, teachers, and others can begin to evaluate the condition of their school building.

Seek out answers to the following questions about your school building:

  • Does your school have any Fire Code violations?
  • Does it have any Building Code violations?
  • Are there any Health Code violations in the building? Lead and asbestos are the most common, and often cause the greatest concern.

If the answer to any of these questions is "YES," then what steps are being taken to resolve these violations? What is the status of each problem situation? For example, if there are Building Code violations, is a Building Court date set? Are there repairs underway, and when will they be completed?

You must ask the most important question: Is each classroom an optimal setting for learning?

This is a very important question to answer. It goes to the very core of what a school is for — learning.

What will ultimately be of greatest concern to you is how exterior renovation and interior renovation work together to make the school a healthy environment and a setting in which children can learn and study without being distracted by the condition of the school building. In fact, building and facility improvements beyond just the urgent repairs are often needed to support the efforts of teachers and children in the educational process taking place in the classroom.

Evaluate the following basic elements of the school and the classrooms:

  • Do classrooms, labs, other special purpose areas, and hallways have enough light?
  • Are ventilation and air circulation adequate?
  • Is the school free of distracting sounds or visual distractions?
  • Is the temperature in the school building adequate and comfortable?
  • Is the electrical system adequate to run all needed equipment, such as computers, copiers, etc.?
  • Is there sufficient room for the number of students per class?
  • Are there adequate facilities for teacher preparation, parent/teacher conferences, or other special events?
  • Are there adequate facilities for specific activities identified in your [school’s educational plan]?

Look inside the building "envelope," the walls, windows, and roof, to the heart of the instructional day. After all, this is what the Capital Improvement Program should ultimately achieve.

From the Ground Up is available on the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group’s website: www.ncbg.org.