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School Pictures | Air Quality

What the District's Students Breathe

Substandard Ventilation and Heating Systems Spew Unhealthy Air, Limit Learning, Many Say

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 31, 2005; Page DZ08

At Walker-Jones Elementary School, about a block from where the D.C. Board of Education meets, irritants such as pigeon and rodent droppings and mold fouled the air so much that earlier this school year the principal and others took to wearing face masks to protect their health.

A father at Shepherd Elementary School in Northwest Washington said his son was ill several times this year, and he believes it was related to the heat in his son's classroom -- the boiler goes full blast nearly all the time -- and to the lack of air circulation.

Touring a School Building
Touring a School Building
Officials examine the windows at Walker-Jones Elementary in D.C. Air quality in several city schools is so bad that parents, faculty members and administrators said children simply cannot learn. (James M Thresher - The Post)

Over at Eastern High School in Northeast Washington, where pigeon manure has been found in recent years above the ceiling tiles, teachers and students frequently complain about respiratory ailments that they believe are made worse by the air in the building.

The air quality in most of the 150 schools in the District schools is so bad, parents, faculty members and administrators say, that children simply cannot learn. Dust, grime, mold and insect infestations combine with malfunctioning heating systems. Indoor temperatures can range from 50 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

"Quite naturally, children are not going to learn," said Ray Bledsoe, the new principal at Walker-Jones. "They are tired and sleepy. You can't learn if you are ill. If you are not going to have proper facilities, you are not going to have proper learning."

Indoor air quality is not a problem restricted to the District. Nationwide, there are estimated to be about 54 million children in 120,000 public and private school buildings, and about half of those buildings are in such bad condition that they "daily threaten children's health and learning," said Claire Barnett, executive director of Healthy Schools Network Inc., a nonprofit organization advocating for environmentally safe and healthy schools.

In the District, the problem is widespread. Cornell Brown, the new executive director of facilities management for the District's public schools, said the vast majority of the schools suffer from air quality problems. Mechanical systems are not working properly in about half of the schools, and housekeeping is substandard in many, Brown said. Indeed, 71 percent of D.C. school buildings are rated "poor" overall, he said.

Concern about indoor air quality is growing as new research shows the health dangers from stagnant air that contains mold, mildew, dust, animal dander, radon, asbestos, formaldehyde and other irritants. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, asthma alone accounts for 14 million missed school days each year. The rate of asthma in young children has risen by 160 percent in the last 15 years, and 1 in 13 school-age children now has asthma, according to the EPA.

The problem is worse in urban areas, Barnett of the Health Schools Network said, because it is those children who are often the most vulnerable to environmental hazards. They come to school with untreated health problems or learning disabilities that can be overcome only in a safe, healthy environment.

While nobody has drawn a scientific link to the air quality in D.C. public schools and the health of children, parents and administrators say it is a no-brainer.

"Students were getting sick," said Principal Bledsoe, explaining that he would see children go home with symptoms at the end of the week and return feeling fine on Monday, only to again exhibit symptoms after being back at school.

Bledsoe arrived as principal at the troubled Walker-Jones, at 100 L St. NW, in the fall of 2004 after his predecessor was found to have a doctorate from a phony school and was transferred. The facility he inherited was a mess, he and other school employees said.

Insects were flying around the halls, and rodents were in the food, which then had to be thrown away, they said. The temperature in some rooms was in the 90s -- in the middle of the winter, because the boilers weren't working properly. Closets were filled with stagnant water and chemicals; the floor was so dirty that the color of the tiles was indeterminate; light fixtures had no bulbs; windows could not be opened, closed or seen through; and the building harbored an unpleasant odor.

Bledsoe said he tried to get his custodial staff of four -- about half of what a school that size should have, according to D.C. facilities officials -- to fix the problems, but they didn't get it done. In fact, budget problems reduced the number of custodians to two in January, although it has since returned to four. Bledsoe fired the chief custodian and sought help from the school system's department of building maintenance.

It wasn't until late February that system officials closed the school for a few days for intensive cleaning. They discovered that chronic roof leaks, mixed with the animal dander, had led to a mold problem, with the worst case near the principal's office, facilities management chief Brown said.

According to Brown, the key problems at Walker-Jones have been fixed, and the school is fundamentally sound and will probably undergo extensive modernization work. But parts of the school still have an odor, and school activists say they are not at all sure that the repairs have solved the problems. Tommy Wells, the school board member whose district includes the school, said the building is a disgrace and should be torn down.

Schools superintendent Clifford B. Janey, still in his first year in the job, has repeatedly said publicly that he finds the physical state of the District's schools appalling, and has asserted that there is no good excuse for the situation.

The school system has been struggling with how to fix the buildings, given that the Capital Improvements Plan approved in 2000 calls for the city to spend some $300 million a year on school facilities, but only about $100 million is budgeted.

D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams's proposed budget for fiscal year 2006 would put $158.6 million toward school repair and construction, a decrease from $174.9 million in the current year.

School board member Wells said it is a travesty that the city cannot come up with the money to give children healthy school buildings.

"People tell us not to shoot too high for the schools," said Wells. "But the city is figuring out how to build a baseball stadium. They can figure this out, too."

Ironically, many of the District's older school buildings were part of an architectural movement to create buildings to promote good health. The high ceilings, windows that opened and corner locations for cross-ventilation were seen as elements of a healthy environment, said Barnett.

But years of neglect allowed many of the buildings to deteriorate. Water leaks and broken pipes weren't fixed, dust accumulated, windows became stuck and vents weren't cleaned.

Such widespread neglect led to poor ventilation, the primary cause of bad indoor air quality, said Elizabeth Cotsworth, director of the Environmental Protection Agency's indoor air quality office.

A Web site, www.fixourschools.net, describes the conditions in District schools. It was started by Mark Borbely, a former teacher at Eastern High School, who said the air quality there was substandard.

The site includes pictures, sent in by students or parents, of deplorable conditions at schools, and has long lists of work orders that different schools have submitted to system facilities officials over the years that have been ignored. Some things do get fixed, but it often takes years.

Bursting pipes is a common complaint. They leave stagnant water that can create mold. Indeed, it is not uncommon for a D.C. school to be closed for a day or more because of broken pipes in the heating system, causing the indoor temperature to plummet.

Clayton Witt, a parent at Brent Elementary School, said the temperatures there got so cold on some days that the kindergarteners wore mittens. Witt's son is still at Brent, but he has transferred his daughter to another school.

Frank Borris said his son's school, Shepherd Elementary, had a different problem. When a control system malfunctioned, the heat ran full blast for nearly a week.

"Do you have any idea how much money we waste in fuel costs?" Borris said in an e-mail. "Some classrooms are so hot I have recorded temperatures in the 90s. Many of the windows don't open so the kids perspire, cough all day, then go outside in the cold for recess. There is no system in place to constantly circulate, filter and add outside air."

As a result, he said, his son was ill a number of times during the year -- and he blames the conditions at the school.

At Walker-Jones, community activist Alverta H. Munlyn said she is not at all pleased with how long it took for the school system to make repairs there -- and she isn't sure they are complete. Munlyn, who heads Northwest 1 Council, a community group that works with parents from the school, learned about many of the problems from her nieces and nephews who attend Walker-Jones. She has heard tales about children and administrators getting sick, and children are warned to stay out of certain areas of the building. She wants the building torn down.

"They can't make enough repairs to fix this place. This is no environment for kids to learn," said Munlyn.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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