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My name is Kate Thomas, and I resigned in 2010 from Los Alamos Public Schools as Assistant Superintendent. Since then I have worked closely in different situations related to the schools. I have been involved in education for 42 years, either as a teacher or an administrator. I am writing this letter to strongly urge Los Alamos voters to vote “Yes” to continue the funding of school renovation in our school district.
Learning is a complex activity, which supremely tests students’ motivation and physical condition. Teaching resources, skills, and curriculum all play a vital role in a child’s education. But what about the physical condition and design of the actual school facility itself? How do they shape a child’s learning experience?
During the school day, teachers and students struggle with such things as noise, glare, mildew, lack of fresh air, hot or cold temperatures, limits on their technology, and allergens. Parents don’t usually have the opportunity to observe these situations as they are working and not in our schools during the day.
In order to ask you to do this, I decided that I needed to research the relationship between healthy school facilities and student achievement. After all, that’s why I’m asking you to approve the continued funding for our schools: student achievement. The studies I read evaluated national student achievement and its relationship to high quality physical facilities.
According to my research, 40 percent of US schools report unsatisfactory environmental conditions. One of the most prevalent issues challenging learning in our schools is building age. The average school today, at 42 years old, faces demands that were never intended or even conceived when the school was built. They were never designed for the use required of them in today’s world: new tools, techniques, methods, supplies, and resources. Aspen was built 62 years ago. It is long past even the average age of depletion.
Our district has done a very high quality job keeping all of our school-owned facilities up and running well, but they are deteriorating. Typical market forces suggest retiring our 40-63 year old schools, but their service continues, perpetuating awkward use of space in classrooms, outmoded designs, poor communication systems, limits to technology, and inadequate security.
Schools have four times as many occupants per square foot as offices and contain a host of pollution sources: lab chemicals, cleaning supplies, chalk dust and allergens. The old materials of which these buildings are made are traps for asthmatic sufferers.
Good acoustics are vital for learning - noise effects concentration and can defeat the learning process. Older ventilation systems create more noise than the newer equipment available today. 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 and carefully manage reverberation of sounds. In general, a good school requires a higher degree of purposeful verbal communication than office and public spaces.
It has been said that a good teacher can teach anything anywhere. That is certainly true in Los Alamos. Students score much greater gains in this district, compared with their national peers. Our teachers perform with a high level of knowledge and ability in teaching. What would happen if we could round out those variables with high quality school facilties? A growing body of research literature strongly suggests a direct relation between the condition and utility of the school facility and the learning that goes on within that facility’s walls and borders. Four recent studies found higher test scores for students learning in better buildings and lower scores for student learning in substandard buildings. “Facility condition may have a stronger effect on student performance than the combined influences of family background, socio-economic status, school attendance, and behavior.” This from a recent report evaluating school facilities in Milwaukee, completed by The Council of Educational Facility Planners.
To completely rebuild all our schools would run into the billions of dollars, which we do not have. What we do have in front of us is a great opportunity to maximize available funds, acquire funds from the state, and move forward to get the best bang for our educational dollars without raising taxes at all. Please vote yes by January 29, when your mail-in ballot is due.