You get what you measure. When schools measure their success by the answers on test results, the importance of other factors, like physical, social, and emotional health can be left out of the equation.
Study after study will point out the importance of exercise in improving the health and learning of students, but physical education and recess are reduced to add more time and resources to tested subjects.
Study after study will detail the importance of school conditions on the health and learning of students, but districts often fail to make needed repairs and renovations which could improve those conditions. This is particularly true in poor school districts like Baltimore City Public Schools, which have suffered frequent budget cuts.
Heating and Cooling
It is inadequate heating and air conditioning in Baltimore City Public Schools that has grabbed headlines. Last winter when boilers failed, several schools closed for emergency repairs. This year, many schools were closed half days for a week due to inadequate air conditioning. It is stunning when our schools cannot provide moderate temperatures for our children which we would expect in any store, government or office building or prison. The loss of classroom time and the disruption of academic and family schedules is tragic. But temperature is only one of the factors that affects student performance.
Ventilation rates in many Baltimore City Public Schools are inadequate. High Co2 levels can reduce student performance; inadequate air exchanges leave students breathing higher levels of indoor pollutants, increasing the likelihood of illness and asthma attacks. In freezing winter days, you can see whole lines of windows open at some schools as teachers are trying to lower the temperatures in their overheated classrooms. I used to squirm at the thought of the energy this wasted. I still squirm, but I’m at least comforted that students are getting ample fresh air.
Dust, pests, mold and chemicals are frequent triggers of asthma attacks. Schools with poor maintenance are more likely to have more asthma triggers. Leaky roofs and plumbing can produce mold hazards, inadequate cleaning and pest control can result in airborne dust and pest allergens. Children in Baltimore are twice as likely to have been diagnosed with asthma than children in Maryland as a whole, so asthma triggers in Baltimore City Public Schools may be sending a disproportionately high percentage of Baltimore children home or to a hospital with an asthma attack. But we don’t know, because the school district does not track absences due to asthma.
Baltimore City Public Schools offers free breakfast and lunch to all students, but not all students are eating these meals. Many students arrive after breakfast service has ended. Students often suggest that schools should offering fresher, more appealing food items.
Classroom lighting is often cited as having a strong correlation to student learning and performance. Most studies find that proper lighting, particularly from natural light sources (windows) is strongly correlated to student learning. Some classrooms don’t have sufficient window light, but in many others, teachers are choosing to block out natural lighting for a variety of reasons: to project lessons on a screen, to control student behavior, to control classroom temperatures, or the blinds are inoperable.
Building awareness of the effect of lighting in classrooms and developing appropriate choices for teachers could improve student health and learning.
Classroom acoustics determines whether students can hear the instruction, collaborate with each other, and focus on their work. Loud fans, noise from other classrooms, loud announcement systems and bells can detract from the learning environment.
A STEM Learning Project which connects schools to the needs of their students.
When students and teachers study how they can improve the health and learning conditions at their school, they are emerged in a hands on scientific investigation into improving their own environment and performance. This can help connect the school to the physical, emotional, social and academic needs of students.
Here are some projects students could do at their schools.
What is the optimal amount and source of light in classrooms?
- Test Light levels in 4 classrooms
- Test students
- Alter light levels (open blinds in 2 classrooms /turn off lights in 2 classrooms)
- Test students
- Survey students/teachers on their preferences for lighting
What is the existing range for temperature and humidity in our classrooms? What is the optimal range?
- Select rooms to test
- Collect temp, humidity data
- Test students
- Control temp/(or wait until cold/hot temperatures)
- Test students
- Compare results.
- Survey students on the best temperature ranges.
What is the existing water quality at our school?:
Test bacteria in water dispensers
Test lead in water supply
Test from inside school
Test sidewalk near bus
Can students improve nutrition at the school?
How old is the food?
How much food waste?
Are there other sources for food or ways to improve freshness and nutritional offerings?
How many students refuse or choose not to eat?
Survey and/or observe which students eat, which don’t.
What effect do the vending machines have on student nutrition?
How can we increase the number of students who eat breakfast?
Test group of students in 1 or 2 classes.
Note: mice and cockroaches love leftovers. If students eat in classrooms, they need to clean up.
How do asthma triggers affect student health and learning at our school?
Who has asthma?
How many asthma absences?
What are the asthma triggers in school?
Chemicals, cleaning agents, pests, dust, air quality.
How to quantify pests?
Survey, Pest Log, glue traps,
How do locked, dirty bathrooms affect students?
Are bathrooms available to students when needed?
Are bathrooms supplied and clean?
Survey students and teachers
Interview bathroom monitors, staff.
Can plants and air filters improve air quality in our school?
Measure and monitor air quality in classrooms
Introduce plants which clean air into one classroom
Introduce mechanical air filters into another clasroom
Remeasure the air quality in the classrooms
Compare the air quality in the test and control rooms.
Survey students and teachers on their opinions on air quality.in their classrooms.
Reporting Findings and Recommendations
The key to these projects are in the final steps: how do students innovate to try to solve these issues, how they report on their findings to their class, and to school and government officials.