On one of the coldest days of winter, with a wind chill of one degree below zero, a class of kindergartners at a Reading, Penn., elementary school sat shivering in their 40-degree classroom wearing their coats and hats.
Their teacher called Reading Education Association (REA) president, Bryan Sanguinito, but there was nothing he or anyone from the district’s facilities unit could do. The school had only one operating boiler, and there was no money to fix the other. Whole sections of the school were literally left out in the cold.
“Who would want to come to school when it’s that cold in the classroom?” asks Sanguinito. “Who could learn in those conditions?”
Unfortunately, those aren’t the worst conditions in the Reading School District. Leaking roofs let rain cascade into classrooms “like Angel Falls,” says Mitch Hettinger, a gifted support education teacher in the Reading School District and REA’s vice president, referring to one of the state’s waterfalls. “Teachers have to move rooms. They have to be flexible and ingenious to get the job done. It’s amazing the kids are as good as they are given the deplorable conditions they put up with.”
Sanguinito, who also teaches orchestra, says the schools were so damp that mold spores began to grow on some of the kids’ violin cases.
“Mold and mildew exacerbate allergies, leading to more absenteeism, and I’ve had teachers who have never had respiratory health problems suddenly develop asthmatic symptoms,” he says. “Would the politicians who cut funding to our schools ever consider working in these conditions?”
Reading’s aging school buildings drew national attention last year when CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, along with NEA Vice President Lily Eskelsen, visited the impoverished Pennsylvania district—and schools in New York and Connecticut—to examine the impact of indoor air quality on students and school employees. His two-part documentary, “Toxic Schools,” found that aging schools around the nation are making children sick.
“After the CNN special aired, people in Reading were in a state of disbelief that conditions could get so bad in our schools, and that it took the union to get the nation’s attention,” says Sanguinito. “Ultimately, it benefited the learning environment in one of our oldest schools, Southern Middle School. The roof was patched, moldy ceiling tiles were replaced, and fresh paint went on all the walls.”
When changing classes, students at Southern Middle School passed through an ancient, dark gymnasium. It hadn’t been used in years because of the crumbling floors, water-damaged walls, and the chunks of peeling plaster that fell from the ceiling. “I was a basketball coach for 25 years and remember times when a player would be dribbling the ball down the court and a huge piece of plaster would fall and explode,” recalls Hettinger.
Students still have to pass through the gym to change classes, but after the CNN documentary aired, the dangerous areas were fenced off to keep students safe.
The Reading School District is emblematic of a national crisis. An estimated 14 million American children attend public schools that are in urgent need of extensive repair or replacement and have unhealthy environmental conditions. Many older schools contain asbestos, lead paint, and dangerous levels of radon.
The improvements at Reading’s Southern Middle School, while temporarily helpful, are just “a Band-Aid,” says Hettinger. “They’re just kicking the can down the road.”
And many of the city’s other schools are in desperate need of major renovations to bring them up to code. But thanks to Gov. Tom Corbett (R-PA), who slashed education funding by $1.1 billion, the state doesn’t have the money to make the fixes.
“There’s a slow strangle going on by those seeking to privatize public schools,” says Sanguinito. “They say we can’t afford to replace or repair our schools, but we give huge tax breaks to the wealthy. It’s a matter of priorities. We need to organize and mobilize people outside of education. If the general public saw what was really happening in our children’s schools, they wouldn’t stand for it.”
Photo: Bryan Sanguinito