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Urban school disrepair causes distractions, hardships for students, staff

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Cody Thompson, executive director of facilities, looks over the blueprints for the recent improvements at Rogers Middle School.  mh
  • Cody Thompson, executive director of facilities, looks over the blueprints for the recent improvements at Rogers Middle School. mh

A teacher struggles to keep her shivering students focused, a maintenance worker shoves a metal piece into a heating unit that he says will just break again next month and a janitor trades out a full bucket for an empty one to collect a steady leak from the ceiling.

This is an average day at Rogers Middle School in Spencer as dilapidated facilities challenge the focus of both students and teachers.

“You tell kids to get started on their writing, and you don’t want to take your own hands out of your pocket because its 58 degrees in the classroom,” said a Rogers teacher.
Rogers employees agreed to share their concerns with Oklahoma Gazette on the condition they not be identified.

Multiple interviews with teachers at Rogers and a school tour revealed an environment that is drastically different from some of the Oklahoma City Public School District’s top facilities, especially those that have received multiple updates through MAPS for Kids.

Rogers has received plenty of work in recent years, including work done through MAPS for Kids. But many feel that much of it is more of a bandage than a permanent fix.

“I am putting pieces on this that really aren’t used on a model like this,” said a maintenance employee working on an old heating system that teachers said has not worked properly in years.

A building tour and a review of teacher cellphone pictures confirmed many of their complaints, including broken thermostats, exposed wires within reach of students, broken windows and multiple leaks.

Rogers is not the only Oklahoma City school in need of repairs, but it’s an example of how low morale and embarrassment can develop in students and educators who spend each day in a building that lacks basic needs often found in more affluent schools.

“The students will tell you no one cares about them,” said a Rogers teacher. “It’s not just the students, but parents who were in for parent-teacher conferences also made remarks that it seems like their school is forgotten.”

School buildings in need of repairs are not unique to OKC. A 2014 survey from the National Center for Education Statistics found that 53 percent of the nation’s public schools needed to spend money on repairs, renovations and modernizations to put school buildings in good overall condition.

Evaluating the district’s 90-plus buildings is a difficult task.

“We need to put together a comprehensive list and plan of our buildings and their needs,” Superintendent Rob Neu told the school board in December. “We don’t have a good reference of what we should be really focusing on when it comes to building maintenance.”

Developing a long-term maintenance and facilities plan is one of several recommendations from the American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE), which rated the average condition of American public schools last year with a D-letter grade. Other recommendations from the ASCE included expansion of federal and state tax credits and matching funds to support increased use of school construction bonds and simplify the process for local school districts to obtain facility construction financing for improvements and modernizations.

OKC’s facility concerns go beyond just leaky roofs and broken thermostats.

Neu has also said school building security is woefully understaffed.

“Tulsa [Public Schools] has 57 staff members on its security team,” Neu said. “We have three.”

Overcrowding is also a major issue, especially on the southside.

“We have classes being held in closets, libraries, spaces that are not designed to be classrooms,” Neu added.

The state of buildings is on a lengthy list of needs in this urban school system that a new leadership team is attempting to work though. Just like principals who deal with staff shortages and teachers pressured to teach to standardized tests, the district’s maintenance workers — including Cody Thompson, the new executive director of OKC facilities — have a difficult job.

“It is a big challenge keeping up with the needs in our buildings,” Thompson said. “We are on the low end when it [comes to maintenance workers].”
The district continues to finish projects through MAPS for Kids and will begin to work toward a possible bond issue for 2016.

Functioning facilities are important for student health and safety, but facilities also contribute to a student’s learning potential, according to numerous studies. Teachers at Spencer said they have seen the negative academic impact of too hot or too cold classrooms and the loud noise caused by old heating and cooling units.

“It sounds like an airplane at times,” one teacher said about a heating unit in her classroom. “I know the kids can’t focus. I can’t focus.”

In his 2001 report Do School Facilities Really Impact a Child’s Education? John Lyons outlines the role physical environment plays in the learning process, including doing away with noisy distractions.

“At any one time, 15 percent of students in an average classroom suffer a hearing problem that is either genetically based, noise-induced or caused by infection,” Lyons wrote in his report. “Students require a higher level of acoustic quality than adults, and to attain the good speech recognition necessary for optimal comprehension and learning, classrooms must limit background noise, carefully manage reverberation of sounds and keep outdoor noise to a minimum.”

Building age, tight budgets and a shortage of maintenance staff has Oklahoma City facing facility issues similar to those at Rogers. Teachers at the school said they understood the challenges the district faced but wanted to reiterate the importance of a clean, safe, functioning classroom.

“It’s not like we are asking for something special,” one teacher said. “We want to teach. We love teaching, and we want to do it in a place that we not only want to come to but where we can focus on the lesson, not the leaks or noise.”

Print headline: Education breakdown, The city’s urban schools are often in various states of disrepair, causing distractions and hardships for students and staff alike.

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