The Reality of Our Nation’s School Buildings

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Through Your Lens is a collection of photos and stories showing the reality of our nation’s school buildings. It’s an effort to raise awareness about safety and health conditions that support—or hinder—learning. It began as a photo competition and has since 

evolved into an ongoing community of student and school photographers who share their images through a Facebook gallery. The community is a collaboration of the 21st Century School Fund, Critical Exposure, and Healthy Schools Campaign.

Exhibit on Capitol Hill

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Student Photographer: “I want to be their voice.”

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Student photographer Briauna Wills shared her story at a past exhibit opening event:

"I chose to join the 'Through Your Lens Exhibit' because I love my school and teachers but I hate the building we are in. I feel imprisoned at my school with the cages on the windows and doors, bad lighting and broken windows. I am so embarrassed by my school building that I tell people I go to Digital Harbor, a Baltimore City school with beautiful new facilities.

My school has so many horrible deficiencies like bad ventilation, uneven heating, and faulty electrical wiring. I have asthma and so do a lot of my friends. Because of the lack of air conditioning and poor ventilation we often miss a lot of class time, especially when the seasons change.

Most of the time, we don’t have enough computers for a full class of students, and we have to share because of the electrical problems. My freshman year, my whole class had to sit with their feet on their chairs in a certain class because the sockets on the floor were old and had wires shooting out from them and my teacher didn’t want us to get shocked.

I had a substitute teacher recently say, 'I’ve seen bad schools, but a school that when you shut the classroom door you get locked in because the knobs are broken and the doors are this old is crazy!' Everyone laughed, but I wished I wasn’t there.

I wish we had lockers big enough to fit my binders in and there weren’t wires hanging from the ceilings and that I didn’t have to stress about being in danger of cutting myself on the broken glass on the doors and windows. I want to go to a better-looking and working school, but I love being here, no matter how many problems we have, although many students have transferred because of it. I would like to see my school up and running like some of the new ones that have been remodeled.

If my school were in better shape, it would make me enjoy coming more. Life would be easier at school if I had facilities like Digital Harbor. I would have fewer worries and wouldn’t feel so down about my school. I understand that other schools have problems just as much as mine and I’m sure there are people at other schools with the same feelings so I want to be their voice and help them get the schools we all deserve."

Why School Buildings Matter

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School buildings play a critical role in the lives of children, teachers, and communities:

  • The physical learning environment has an impact on student achievement and teaching quality.
  • School buildings and sites directly affect student and teacher health.
  • Schools are major consumers of materials, energy, land and water. That makes building improvement a powerful form of environmental stewardship, energy savings and pollution reduction in our communities.
  • The physical characteristics of public schools impact their surrounding neighborhood, and schools often serve as an important community commons for the public.

Many of our nation’s public school buildings are in poor condition. In 31 states, people have challenged the adequacy or equity of public education funding in low-income communities, and facility conditions were an important element of their lawsuits.

The American Society of Civil Engineers began including public schools in its Infrastructure Report Card in 1998. That year it gave public schools an "F" grade. In 2009, the Infrastructure Report Card gave the nation’s public schools a “D” grade. Our nation’s schools would need well over $200 billion to bring school buildings up to basic standards of repair.

Opportunities for Federal Leadership

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States and localities have made significant investments in school facilities—more than $500 billion between 1995 and 2004 alone. But the need for maintenance and repairs is still extreme. This is especially true in low-income communities.

  • The federal government can take the lead in encouraging partnerships among federal agencies, states, and localities for better planning and coordination of efforts to improve school buildings and surrounding neighborhoods.
  • Our federal government and local communities need better information about school building conditions. The federal government can develop a national database on school facilities with standardized metrics defining school facility needs. The database would be similar to the National Center for Education Statistics, which collects student and teacher data from local and state education agencies.

Join Us

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Learn more, view student photos and submit your own images to the Through Your Lens online gallery at ThroughYourLens.org or visit the Through Your Lens Facebook page

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