4/24/16 This Old School

Turrentine Middle School students walk past a closed, boarded-up walkway that will be repaired over the summer break. Normally students would use the walkway to the right to get to their next classes.

Sam Roberts / Times-News

Turrentine Middle School students walk past a closed, boarded-up walkway that will be repaired over the summer break. Normally students would use the walkway to the right to get to their next classes.

This Old School
Most ABSS schools were built between the Truman and Ford administrations
By Isaac Groves The Times-News 4/24/16  
Reprinted with permission.  

   The average age of school buildings nationwide is 40, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The average school building in the Alamance-Burlington School System is about 52.

   The age of school buildings can affect how teachers teach, how well students learn — according to some research — and without question how districts spend their money.

   “Average” means ABSS students learn in one facility that’s more than 100 years old — the gym at Sylvan Elementary School — while the Career and Technical Education Center was built in this decade.

   “Old” doesn’t necessarily mean poor condition, but it takes work to overcome decades of wear and tear, which was neglected in many cases.

   “I think all the attention schools have been getting over the last 10 or 15 years has been on test scores, and the recession didn’t help any,” said Steve Van Pelt, chairman of the Alamance-Burlington Board of Education. “We’ve been concerned about that and less concerned about school buildings, and we’ve reached a point where we have to do something about this.”

   Most ABSS schools — 25 of them — were built between 1948 and 1974.

   “Some of that had to do with the Baby Boom, and some of that had to do with integration,” Van Pelt said. “Starting in the mid ’60s, many black schools were closed or repurposed as integrated schools — Graham High School is a good example of that.”

   The old Burlington City School System also replaced most of its schools between 1938 and 1963 under the leadership of Superintendent L.E. Spikes, Van Pelt said.

   WEAR AND TEAR are definitely issues. Turrentine Middle Schools has been doing without its second-story walkway all year, meaning students have to take the long way to get from class to class. It will cost $477,000 to replace it, and much of that is just to tear the old one down.

   It’s not just about age, but also style. Schools were, of course, different 50 years ago. In those days, a classroom needed maybe a projector and a fan. Now, there are Smart Boards, laptops, tablets and more all needing electrical outlets that just aren’t there, Assistant Superintendent Todd Thorpe said.

   When Western Alamance Middle School and a couple others were built, the trend in education was open school layouts with no interior walls, Van Pelt said. Noise was a problem. Interior walls came with a bond issue in the 1990s.

   Many older schools weren’t designed for air conditioning, Van Pelt said, and it took a lot of redesign to retrofit them.

   These days the trend is to teach small groups of students to tailor education to individuals, CTEC Principal Darrell Thomas said, and that takes space. Newer schools are built for it, and others are not. New teachers are trained for it and have to adapt quickly sometimes.

   “I think they can be adaptive, but they are taught in ideal situations when they student teach,” Thomas said.

   RESEARCH SUGGESTS it’s more than a matter of inconvenience. Students do better in newer buildings, and teachers stay longer.

   A 2008 study by the University of Texas at Austin found students in the newest schools showed a 5-to-9 percent difference in academic performance, compared to students in the oldest schools. There was a 4 percent difference in graduation rates as well. Other studies found higher teacher-turnover rates in older schools or schools in poor condition, and greater problems with discipline.

   Thomas has been with ABSS for about 16 years now. He’s at CTEC now, but most of those years were at E.M. Holt, Sylvan and Ray Street Academy — some of the oldest brick and mortar in the district. Working in an old building can just take more time and energy, he said, with small classrooms, cold or hot rooms, and without the resources for every lesson plan — while in the same building there would be a newer section where it was just easier to work.

   “With the upgrades, you have more time to do the instruction as opposed to trying to makeshift to make things happen,” Thomas said.

   “Those are the things you struggle with in an old building,” Thorpe said. “Can it be fixed? With major upgrades, yes, it can.”

   TIM SUTTON, a former Alamance County Commissioner now running again, said old buildings are not a problem if they are taken care of and the people inside are taking care of business. Several 75- or 100-year-old school buildings in Guilford County work just fine, he said.

   “The key is maintenance,” Sutton said. “Buildings don’t educate; teachers do.”

   He’s not the only one who thinks so. A 2005 study from the Wyoming Peabody Journal of Education found no discernible relationship between building conditions and test scores.

   Superintendent Bill Harrison proposes that ABSS build a new high school and elementary school. Whether or not that happens, there will still be a lot of maintenance and renovation if the existing schools are going to work, and that will cost. The district hasn’t come up with an estimate yet, but it will be more than the county has sitting around.

   “There’s not much we can do about that besides going out there and trying to find the money,” Van Pelt said.

   The district is pursuing some creative financing, like a plan to pay for energy-saving upgrades with loans against those future savings.

   The district is using the last money from the local bond measure to take care of all these old buildings, Van Pelt said.

   He has hope the state could have another bond issue like the one voters passed for universities and community colleges in March.

   “They need a lot of tender loving care,” Van Pelt said, “and hopefully we can get a bond issue, if not statewide, maybe locally.”

School Age Chart