"A National Crisis": NEA Spotlights Urgent Need for School Modernization

When it rains, water pours out of the ceiling into Christopher Meyer’s classroom. He places buckets around the room, pushes student desks out of the way, and puts a tarp over his own desk. Then he has to scramble to find a dry, safe room where he can continue his lessons.

“At one point I had a waterfall cascading into a light fixture in the ceiling,” Meyer says. “Kids were sitting in puddles in metal chairs as water hit exposed wires. They were like individual lightening rods. You can’t get any more dangerous than that.”

Holes in the ceiling and exposed wires are common in classrooms at Southern Middle School in Reading, Pennsylvania. Photo: Cindy Long

Meyer, a seventh grade social studies teacher at Southern Middle School in Reading, Pennsylvania, showed the abysmal state of his classroom to NEA Vice President Lily Eskelsen and NEA Health Information Network Director Jerry Newberry during American Education Week. The purpose of their visit was to highlight the dire, immediate need for school modernization funding to repair schools that are literally falling to pieces.

They also let students and educators at Southern Middle know that NEA and its members are urging Congress to pass President Obama’s Fix America’s Schools Today Act, which would provide $25 billion for modernizing and repairing public schools, with half of the funds funneled to schools that need it most.

Southern Middle, which is more than 90 years old, is one of those schools. The roof leaks throughout the building, causing tiles to fall out of the drop ceilings. Wires are exposed, paint is bubbled and chipped, and pieces of plaster fall from the ceiling and walls. Toxins from the paint and plaster particulates as well as mold spores from the water damage circulate through an ancient HVAC system and into the air.

“The message these kids get when they look up and see their classroom ceiling leaking and falling in is, ‘I don’t matter,’” says Eskelsen.  “How can we expect students to achieve in these conditions? This is a national crisis. We need to repair our public schools to keep our children healthy and allow them to learn.”

An estimated 14 million American children attend deteriorating public schools. Of the existing 80,000 public schools, at least one-third need extensive repair or replacement and at least two-thirds have unhealthy environmental conditions.

According to a Department of Education survey, 43 percent of schools indicated that the poor condition of their facilities interferes with the delivery of instruction. The impact of these conditions also includes increased rates of illness, lower student achievement, as well as reduced teacher productivity.

NEA Vice-President Lily Eskelsen speaks with Reading Education Association President Bryan Sanguinito. Photo: Cindy Long

“Poor indoor environmental quality contributes to serious health problems for students and staff, including asthma, allergic reactions, fatigue, headaches and respiratory tract infections,” says NEA HIN’s Newberry. “This causes high rates of absenteeism, and dramatically decreases the ability to concentrate and learn when students actually do make it class.”

Reading has long been the poorest school district in state. Now the sprawling eastern  Pennsylvania city is the poorest city in the country, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, beating out perpetually downtrodden cities like Flint, Michigan, and Brownsville, Texas.

“The students here are so poor, they don’t even know they’re poor,” says Ruthanne Waldie, a Pennsylvania State Education Association representative for the Reading School District. “But they are the hardest working, best behaved students you’ll see anywhere. Despite the conditions of their school, the students are happy to be here and happy to learn. These are the kinds of kids our nation should be proud of.”

The staff is certainly proud of them. The students at Southern Middle School have made Annual Yearly Progress every year until last year, when the school’s budget was slashed and they had to eliminate after school tutors.

And even though his classroom is known for its waterfall, Christopher Meyer wouldn’t trade his seventh grade social studies students for anything.

“I’ve been here eight years,” he says. “And this is where I want to stay. We just need the necessary funding to make our school a safe place to learn and work.”

Take Action: Tell Congress to Support the Fix America’s Schools Today (FAST) Act.