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Making the Grade - How Building Environments Can Positively Impact Student Achievement

By Tom Gentzel, executive director and CEO, National School Boards Association

A school’s facility conditions can have an unexpected impact on student and teacher morale, productivity and performance, as evidenced by research report. Studies have found positive correlations between building conditions and student performance. Unfortunately, the inverse is also true. Given the fact that many facilities in the United States are in dire need of upgrades and improvements, how do you ensure they’re not working to the detriment of student achievement?

The reality is this: A report issued in March 2016 from the Center for Green Schools estimated that America spends $46 billion less annually on construction and maintenance on schools than is needed to keep a safe and healthy environment. One in six people in America spend their day in a K-12 school and schools represent the largest public building sector in America, yet the last GAO evaluation of school infrastructure is from 1995 and the average American school is 44 years old.

The financing system for most school districts is not structured to upgrade facilities nor effectively maintain the existing ones. School board members are often forced to choose between maintaining the building and keeping teachers. This is a no win choice and it is our children who lose as a result.

Thus, a challenge exists—facilities are in need of upgrades and capital budgets are tight. Add to this the fact that these very facilities could directly impact student achievement, and the urgency becomes clear. Fortunately, creative solutions exist to help schools address these environmental and infrastructure conditions so they can focus on their primary goal: serving students.

Many school districts have turned to Energy Saving Performance Contracts (ESPC), financing tools made possible by energy service companies such as Honeywell that enable schools to overcome budgeting challenges to make critical building updates. These agreements provide an avenue for schools to fund necessary building upgrades using the annual energy and operational savings they generate. The savings are guaranteed by Honeywell, and the contract eliminates the need for any upfront capital investment.

School districts can dive in and make upgrades that not only improve school efficiency and energy savings, but also create environments more conducive to learning. According to a research report from the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, the most popular areas for improvement to impact student achievement include:

  • Indoor Air Quality – Poor indoor air quality can lead to symptoms such as irritated eyes, nose and throat, as well as upper respiratory infections, nausea, dizziness, headaches and general fatigue—all things that can detract from learning, and cause increases in absenteeism, to boot.
  • Building Climate – Building climate – including temperature and humidity levels – not only impact occupant comfort, but can also create conditions conducive to the growth of bacteria and mold growth, which can also negatively impact student health. 
  • Acoustics and Noise – Research has found that good acoustics leads to good academic performance. This paired with efforts to limit excessive noise from building systems such as heating and cooling equipment, can positively impact student learning and achievement. 
  • Lighting Conditions – Optimal lighting enables students to more easily read, and thus learn –​no surprises there. And recent studies have also found that increasing a school’s natural lighting can have positive psychological and physiological benefits, as well.
  • Interior Colors – Colors can affect a person’s mood or behavior within a room or a building. When looking at how colors affect students, one study found that student achievement improved when walls were painted pastel colors instead of white.

It is critical that school districts and city leaders partner with energy services companies that have the experience, credibility and engineering resources needed to design a program that is self-funded through energy savings and drives a clean, green, safe school for students and teachers.