Each of the thousands of school districts and millions of classrooms in the United States has its own unique set of challenges that reflect a wide diversity of students, teachers, resources and communities.
Yet each school system also confronts similar facilities and business issues that cut across differences in population, geography and wealth. Is there enough space for every student? Will there be enough teachers to guide them? Do the buildings enhance learning, or is inadequate design and deterioration hurting student performance?
Once you decide to start a list of these issues, it could go on at some length. With a bow to the decimal system, this article will stop at 10. These are among the top issues that continually crop up as challenges for schools to overcome or goals to achieve. These might not be the top priorities for every district, but at some point, most schools will have to decide how to address them.
Since the first charter school was established less than 10 years ago, this reform movement has been embraced by hundreds of educators yearning for the freedom to try new strategies to help students learn.
In exchange for a commitment to meet or exceed a state's academic standards, charter schools are freed from many of the regulations that govern - and some would say, constrain - what schools can do. Charter schools can encourage innovative ways of teaching and give students more options to choose from.
Minnesota passed the first charter-school law in 1991. Now, 36 states and the District of Columbia have laws authorizing charter schools. According to the Center for Education Reform, more than 500,000 students are attending charter schools.
School districts can view charter schools two ways - as a means of exploring alternative education methods that might enhance learning for students, or as a distraction that drains needed resources from traditional schools.
Alleviating a school from regulations and traditional board oversight is inherently risky. In some cases, charter schools without the needed financial resources or management expertise have run into difficulties - a few have had to close.
But for now, the trend points to more charter schools. The Center for Education Reform says that of 53 research-based studies of charter schools, 50 have concluded that the schools "have been innovative and accountable, and have created both opportunities for the children that attend them and a `ripple' effect on traditional public schools within their jurisdiction."
The National School Boards Association (NSBA) has issued its own report on charter schools that is less convinced of the movement's success in improving education. But the NSBA acknowledges the popularity of charters and encourages local boards to work with the schools to help them succeed.
It offers districts these recommendations:
- Look for situations in which education alternatives such as a charter school might be effective, like experimental programs for at-risk students.
- Strive for public schools and charter schools to cooperate and work toward common goals.
- A school board should charter only as many schools as it can monitor and support effectively.
Construction and Repair of Facilities
School districts have taken substantial steps in the 1990s to address their facilities needs. Yet, as buildings continue to age and modern classroom requirements continue to evolve, the extent of the problem remains immense. The average school building is more than 40 years old, and many classrooms are inadequate or obsolete.
Last year, the National Education Association estimated that public school systems nationwide would need $322 billion to repair and modernize facilities. A U.S. Department of Education report, "Condition of America's Public School Facilities: 1999," found that three-quarters of schools need to spend money on repairs, renovations and modernizations.
"If schools are unable to perform maintenance or construct new buildings when necessary," the report says, "facilities problems multiply, which can result not only in health and safety problems, but also in increased costs of repairs."
The way most districts have addressed their facility needs is to ask voters to support a bond proposal. Bolstered by a strong economy, schools have had greater success in recent years winning voter approval for construction projects.
Since enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools bottomed out at 39.2 million students in 1984, it has risen each year. According to the U.S. Department of Education, more than 47 million students were enrolled this year in public elementary and secondary schools. Projections show that enrollment will peak in 2005 at 47,475,000.
That means that even if school districts had their facilities in good enough shape to accommodate current enrollment, they still would have to find ways to add classroom space for the growth that is expected.
In addition, many education reformers are advocating - and some states are mandating - smaller classroom enrollments, especially in the primary grades, to provide students with a more effective education. Districts that reduce the numbers of children in each classroom will have to compensate by having more classrooms available.
The federal government's Class Size Reduction Program is providing funds to districts to help them reduce their class sizes. For the 2000-2001 school year, districts are receiving $1.3 billion to recruit, hire and train new teachers.
School districts can identify their facility needs and devise creative solutions, but without money, educators can't transform those visions into reality.
To build grassroots support for construction and renovation projects, many districts are inviting all the stakeholders in their communities to take part in planning facility improvements. By including all parties in the planning process, school districts are more likely to have the support of the community at large when they are seeking funding approval at the ballot box.
Winning a bond issue has been difficult in jurisdictions, such as California, that require a supermajority for approval. Many districts in that state had won the support of a majority of voters for their bond issues, but could not muster the required two-thirds majority.
But in November, Californians voted to lower the threshold districts have to meet for a successful bond issue. Instead of needing a two-thirds majority, districts now need only a 55 percent majority.
In other cases, districts have had some success going to court to seek more equitable ways of gaining access to funds for construction and repairs. To avoid potentially onerous court rulings, state legislatures often step in with more funding.
Improving the Learning Environment As more school districts are able to address their facilities needs, they are focusing not only on how much space their programs require, but also on what type of space.
Rather than building an uninspiring row of rectangular classrooms along a long corridor, many districts are choosing innovative school designs that complement the curriculum and enhance a student's learning opportunities.
"This pressing need to add, renovate or replace educational facilities presents an opportunity for citizens, educators and facilities planners to take a broader view of what constitutes an effective, appropriate learning environment," says the U.S. Department of Education's "Schools as Centers of Community: A Citizen's Guide for Planning and Design."
C. Kenneth Tanner, a professor with the School Design and Planning Laboratory at the University of Georgia in Athens, has compiled 29 aspects of school design that relate significantly to student achievement. They include everything from the types of roofs, windows and walls chosen to the placement of entrances, hallways and offices.
Many of the aspects relate to offering students a variety of spaces to stimulate learning: instructional neighborhoods within schools, green areas, activity pockets for small-group work, quiet areas, outdoor spaces, places for a student to display personal items, spaces set aside for computers and other technology.
To view all 29 school design aspects, visit www.coe.uga.edu/sdpl/research/principlesofdesign.html.
Security and Safety
After the spate of school shootings in the late 1990s that culminated with the tragic slayings at Columbine High School in Colorado, school administrators have moved security to the top of their priority list.
Many schools have responded with more programs to detect potential problems before they reach such a dangerous level, and others have re-examined their buildings and campuses to see if more equipment or other changes can help students and staff be more secure.
Congress has enacted federal laws, such as the Gun-Free Schools Act, to improve school safety. It calls for schools to expel students who bring firearms to school. According to the most recent numbers from the U.S. Department of Education, the number of students expelled for carrying a firearm to school is decreasing - 3,523 in 1998-99 compared with 3,658 in 1997-98.
Because no type of school - urban, suburban or rural, small or large - seems immune from sudden violence, school security experts say every building must have a crisis plan in place so staff members know how to react in an emergency, as well as how to take steps to prevent crises.
Many schools have added resource officers to their campuses, or established a regular law-enforcement presence at school to help prevent crime. The Center for the Prevention of School Violence says a resource officer should be trained "to perform three roles: law-enforcement officer; law-related counselor; and law-related education teacher."
Maintenance and Operations
Despite the recent construction boom in education, most districts have to rely at least in part on aging facilities. The average age of a school building in the United States is more than 40 years old.
"A substantial number of schools are in poor condition, and some of them suffer from age and overcrowding," according to "Condition of America's Public School Facilities: 1999."
The report showed that 50 percent of public schools reported that at least one building feature - HVAC, roofs, walls, finishes, windows, doors, electrical system, life-safety features, lighting, plumbing, floors and foundations - was in less than adequate condition.
To save energy and maintenance costs, many districts have turned to performance contracts that allow them to pay for improvements with the savings generated by the improvements.
It is estimated that K-12 schools spend more than $6 billion a year on energy. The U.S. Department of Energy says more efficient energy management - alternatives such as solar and geothermal power, behavioral changes such as turning off unused lights, or designs that incorporate the use of more daylight to illuminate a school - could reduce that bill by more than $1 billion.
Staff Training and Retention
A growing population of students, a trend toward smaller class sizes, and the accelerating pace of teacher retirements mean districts across the nation will be struggling to find enough competent teachers to instruct the next generation of students.
"If the pupil/teacher ratio remains constant, about 2 million newly hired public school teachers and about 500,000 newly hired private school teachers will be needed during the 11-year period from 1998-99 to 2008-09," says a National Center for Education Statistics report, "Predicting the Need for Newly Hired Teachers in the United States to 2008-09."
The needs are especially critical in certain subject areas - math and science, computers, special education and foreign languages. Teachers who are members of minority groups also are underrepresented, compared with the number of minority students.
The report suggests that offering current teachers incentives could forestall their retirements and reduce the number of replacements needed. Improved salaries and benefits could persuade others to remain in the profession instead of seeking potentially more lucrative opportunities.
Making more training available to teachers, especially in technology-related areas, could help make them more comfortable with computers and better able to integrate technology into their instruction.
With each passing year, technology does more and costs less, and schools have recognized that they have to offer students access to technology to provide a well-rounded education.
In 1999, 95 percent of U.S. public schools had Internet access, and 63 percent of classrooms were connected. The average school had one computer for every nine students.
A major factor in linking schools to the Internet has been the E-rate. The federal government, through the Universal Service Fund for Schools and Libraries, provides schools discounts on telecommunication services and equipment, and Internet connections. The money comes from surcharges on telecommunications services.
The discount ranges from 20 percent to 90 percent, depending on the economic characteristics of a school's population. Now in its third year, the E-rate has allocated more than $5 billion to schools and libraries.
Beyond the classroom, schools also are exploiting technology to improve their business practices. And "dot-com" startup companies, who want to bring some of the billions spent by schools to the Internet, are vying to lure schools to use their businesses.
School officials are using these e-commerce sites on the World Wide Web to procure supplies and equipment for their school districts. While still in their infancy, these businesses have the potential to let schools buy products more cheaply, more quickly, and with less paperwork and bureaucracy.
The U.S. school system is designed as a collection of locally controlled districts. But inevitably, state and federal regulations and programs influence how a local district must operate.
Laws such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act call upon schools to provide services or accommodations, but the mandates often do not include funding to carry out the provisions of the law.
When state and federal governments require schools to adopt certain policies or establish specific programs without providing the money needed to do so, schools often are between a rock and a hard place: Ignore a federal or state mandate and risk punitive action, or slash other programs to free funds and meet the unfunded mandates.
Without the money to carry out a program, a district often is put in the position of seeking less costly ways of meeting a mandate, which can alienate parents who believe their children are entitled to the most effective program, regardless of cost.
More funding from states and federal agencies would help districts. In the absence of that, districts that become more efficient in other areas - energy use, maintenance, purchasing practices - may be able to realize savings that could ease budget constraints.
Kennedy is staff writer for AS&U.