“Welcome to jail.”
That’s how a student described his Florida high school to a teacher. From the metal detectors at the front doors, to the shuttered windows blocking any sunlight from entering classrooms, to how administrators and security look—literally—down on students during their lunch hour in the central courtyard from the upper levels, watching their every move. The teacher shared all of these examples to demonstrate how “the actual architecture and classroom set ups contributed to feelings of not belonging” for her young students.
This is unacceptable. If publicly funded school architecture results in students not feeling like they belong—just as it did for the Florida student—this harms their social and emotional well-being and academic outcomes. Children should always be—and feel—physically safe at school. That’s the absolute lowest baseline: clean air and water, schools with dependable physical infrastructure, etc. But that’s nowhere near enough to foster student learning, especially in a time of tremendous trauma and loss. Children need—and deserve—to feel like they belong in their school’s learning community, like they’re emotionally safe and celebrated.
As school districts across the country receive $13.2 billion through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) to address the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Department of Education must direct districts to build more welcoming schools in partnership with the surrounding communities. Schools are a part of the infrastructure that is fundamental to advancing educational equity, and the goals of equity cannot be achieved if the families that a school serves do not have a say in its design and administration.
As former teachers and as designers who have all taught at or attended public school in the United States, we know just how important it is for children to feel like they belong in their learning environments. If local governments value justice and equity, centering the voices of students in the design process is critical, and can help to rectify years of historic isolation for underserved students in schools.
A History of Disinvestment in School Infrastructure
Disinvestment in K–12 public school infrastructure has occurred for decades, directly impacting the over 50 million students who these buildings aim to serve. Over twenty years ago, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO)—an independent agency tasked with helping Congress oversee federal programs—found that a third of the country’s schools are crumbling. Fast forward to 2018, and an updated GAO report exposed high levels of lead in the water of one-third of schools tested. Just last year, the American Society of Civil Engineers put out a report that said there is, at minimum, a $38 billion annual funding gap for public school facilities, and gave the entire country a D+ for school facilities.
As former teachers and as designers who have all taught at or attended public school in the United States, we know just how important it is for children to feel like they belong in their learning environments.
What’s more, this disinvestment in school infrastructure disproportionately harms communities of color and economically disadvantaged communities. A June 2019 commentary by Laura Jimenez from the Center for American Progress lists examples that underscore a deplorable scene: in a 2016 study of schools operated by the federal Bureau of Indian Education, five of the thirteen schools reviewed are in condemned buildings. Jimenez—who is the former director of standards and accountability at the Center for American Progress and the current director for the Office of State and Grantee Relations at the U.S. Department of Education—cites crumbling, unsafe schools in Baltimore with no heat during the winter, and endemic rat, roach and mold problems.
The Impact of Infrastructure on Students and Outcomes
A school building and the spaces within it have a huge impact on the students and families that enter. A 2016 study by Cornell University professor Lorraine Maxwell that looked at 236 New York City middle schools found that a building’s infrastructure has a significant influence on a school’s social climate and a student’s sense of self-worth and motivation. Physical problems recorded at the schools—including poor indoor air quality, a lack of windows, leaking roofs, and water stains—were correlated with students’ negative perception of their schools’ social climate. In turn, students in the problem-plagued schools were less likely to go to school, and their high absenteeism resulted in lower test scores.
Of course, the causes of absenteeism are complex and can differ by student. However, unwelcome, unsafe, and/or frightening school settings clearly contribute to the problem. Our interview with the Florida teacher mentioned above and our own personal experiences as teachers show that children felt uncomfortable or unwelcome in school before the pandemic. As a result, school leaders must be even more thoughtful about the spaces to which they are bringing students back after more than two years of disruption and immense loss.
A Renewed Focus on School Infrastructure during the Pandemic
During the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately $13.2 billion of the $30.75 billion in the Education Stabilization Fund (Coronavirus Aid Relief, and Economic Security, or “CARES,” Act) has been allocated by Congress to the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) for school infrastructure. Along with supporting basic needs, like updating ventilation, roofing, and plumbing, the funds can finance additional design interventions to further support healthy learning environments. COVID relief dollars can and should provide critical investments in our schools that can serve the dual purpose of short-term infrastructure repairs and long-term inclusive building practices for all our students in the generations to come. ESSER should not just be a once-in-a-lifetime event. This policy should be the start of a robust, consistent, long-term financial commitment to deliver more equitable, welcoming school infrastructure for all.
There is a deep need across the country for long-term federal financing of public school infrastructure. In May of 2022, the House Education and Labor Committee advanced the Reopen and Rebuild America’s Schools Act (H.R. 604), sponsored by Representative Robert C. Scott (D-VA-3). The bill provides financial support to states not only for major construction of new facilities or modernization and renovation of existing facilities, but also for design interventions that can support equity, inclusivity, and belonging. Title III Section 301 of the bill’s uses of funds also include: making public school facilities accessible to people with disabilities; providing instructional program space improvements (i.e., spaces related to early learning, special education, science, music, arts, literacy, technology); and “increas[ing] the use of public school facilities for the purpose of community-based partnerships that provide students with academic, health, and social services.” The bill also provides a temporary increase in funding for aid construction, extending the deadline for states and districts to use H.R. 604 funds through 2026. Extra time can help provide the opportunity for more thoughtful community-engaged design practices.
ESSER should not just be a once-in-a-lifetime event. This policy should be the start of a robust, consistent, long-term financial commitment to deliver more equitable, welcoming school infrastructure for all.
On October 26, the White House released a fact sheet on building better school infrastructure, outlining a number of new initiatives between the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Energy. One of these initiatives is the Renew America’s Schools Grant, a pool of $80 million in funding that will focus on high-impact improvements in rural and high-poverty public school districts to build healthier, more energy efficient schools. According to the fact sheet, these grants will be made available to public schools this year. This recent effort by the White House is a step in the right direction, demonstrating a longstanding and massive need for critical infrastructure improvements for schools in underserved communities. Unfortunately, it lacks clear guidance on how to include student and family engagement in the process of these improvements.
Fixing crumbling schools is the bare minimum. It is not enough to patch up what is obsolete and crumbling—something better must be built. Schools are one of the first public institutions that kids consistently engage with, and if that space is cold, dark, dangerous, and unwelcoming, students will associate learning and education with these sentiments. Indeed, school buildings can facilitate isolation. However, with some care, they can also facilitate a sense of belonging and community. Each design decision—from the materials to the floor plan—reflects our values, and imparts those values to the students.
Schools are one of the first public institutions that kids consistently engage with, and if that space is cold, dark, dangerous, and unwelcoming, students will associate learning and education with these sentiments.
In essence, the persistent underinvestment in school infrastructure creates both a public health imperative and is essential for supporting long-term, equitable academic success.
At this year’s Harvard University Askwith Education Forum, CEO for Chicago Public Schools Pedro Martinez underscored how “our learning spaces are one of the tools we have to bridge the inequities… so we have to make sure those buildings do provide that equity.” Patching up old buildings is not enough. Building safety is the bare minimum. The U.S. Department of Education must also make sure school buildings are actively welcoming—that they are a place students want to be for a good part of their lives. Setting a higher standard for school infrastructure at the federal level will lead to a more equitable future for everyone.
The federal government must lead in transforming school infrastructure to ensure that every child has access to a safe, equitable, inclusive, and welcoming school environment. Here are just a few critical ways the U.S. Department of Education can do this through design, construction, and evaluation:
- Issue updated guidance on equitable school design based on the 2003 publication, Schools as Centers of Community: A Citizen’s Guide for Planning and Design, written by The National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities and funded by the U.S. Department of Education, which highlights the need for learning environments to “result from a planning and design process that involves all community interests.” Updates must be informed by current students, teachers, administrators, and caretakers.
- Create a competitive grant for districts aiming to build and maintain safe and welcoming school infrastructure projects in economically disadvantaged communities. Grantees would be required to actively engage directly impacted communities in the design process—and compensate them for their time (examples can be found here).
- Collect, measure, and publish qualitative and quantitative data on the impact of school infrastructure projects funded by competitive grants. Grant recipients can issue annual surveys and host school forums to assess how infrastructure changes influence academic outcomes and student health, well-being, and sense of belonging. Biannual reports that include these data should be released by the department, to make it easier to track the impact of inclusive school design practices nationally and share best practices.
As The National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities states, ”Ironically, students—the people with the largest stake in education and those most directly affected by the learning environment—are the ones most frequently excluded from decisions regarding its design. Leaving students out of the planning process is a mistake.”
Although infrastructure may not be top of mind when thinking about social and emotional wellness and academic outcomes, students like the Florida high school student discussed at the beginning of this commentary remind us that the physical space is a critical aspect of what creates the emotional learning space. It is unacceptable for our schools to look and feel like jails. In this pandemic-influenced rush of discourse around safe public infrastructure, we must go beyond temporary physical repairs to designing something more sustainable and responsive to public need. This takes federal policies that ensure all schools are built with and for students and their communities.
We would like to thank Jayla Hart for her support in editing early drafts of this commentary, as well as Francisco Miguel Araiza, Stefan Lallinger, Emma Vadehra, Conor Williams, and the Editorial and Communications teams for their thoughtful feedback and contributions.