In his speech last night, President Obama pinpointed school construction as way to kickstart job growth. It makes sense to focus on construction projects as a quick pathway to more American jobs, and examples of dilapidated school buildings are not hard to find. But we hope that any legislation that carries this idea will be carefully written to include PreK-12, not just K-12, schools. Pre-kindergarten classrooms and facilities must be considered part of school construction needs. They too are in need of renovation, especially given that many schools have resorted to creating makeshift early childhood classrooms out of areas once used for book storage and the teaching of older children.
An outline of the American Jobs Act, the bill the President pressed for last night, states that 35,000 schools could be modernized with a proposed $25 billion in funding for public schools. The outline includes a priority for rural schools and proposes dedicated funding for Bureau of Indian Education funded schools, and it contains descriptions of funds being used for a range of repair and renovation projects, from energy efficiency upgrades to the building of new science and computer labs. (The President also proposed spending $5 billion to renovate community colleges.)
The outline makes no mention of early education specifically, and Ed Week's Politics K-12 blog described the proposal as for "K-12 schools," which could lead some policymakers to assume that it is not intended for learning spaces that include children before kindergarten. But, in a conference call led by the U.S. Department of Education this morning, officials clarified that the funding could be used for renovations of pre-kindergarten classrooms if those classrooms are funded by school districts. It will be important for Congress to ensure that the bill's language does not erect K-12 barriers that would leave pre-k programs out.
A growing number of public schools around the country include pre-kindergarten classrooms within their physical spaces as well as on their campuses. In addition, many forward-looking school districts today are engaged in partnerships with community-based organization that run pre-k programs outside of the physical structure of the schools. Recognizing that school districts are increasingly working with community-based organizations -- and that those organizations are often the ones providing the physical space for early childhood classrooms -- will be an important part of ensuring that school construction is inclusive of early education. As we've argued before, Congress will need to make sure that funding can be flexible enough to include a wide range of early childhood facilities, ensuring that young children in pre-k are taught in physical spaces that are age-appropriate and built for their size.
Here's more from a post about school construction that we published during debates over the economic stimulus two years ago. If this jobs bill gains any traction, we hope these words will be heeded this time around:
Pre-k construction isn't just about putting up a few more walls and building a parking lot. Children need high-quality spaces that account for their developmental needs. Well-designed buildings can decrease behavior problems, improve teacher-child interactions, give children more room to play and send the message to staff members their work is important and respected.
Playgrounds for young children, for example, should include climbing structures that are low to the ground, with no gaps to fall through. Building entrances need to accommodate parents coming to drop off and pick up their children without having to navigate around massive school buses. Acoustics must be managed to allow for relatively quiet environments, where young children can pick up the nuances of speech and language. Rooms should be designed according to the latest green-building standards, letting in natural sunlight and clean air.
Many states require preschools to provide at least 35 square feet of space for each child. Most experts consider that much too small, aiming for more like 45 to 50 feet per child. We agree. (For a great review of research on this point, see "The 35 Square Foot Myth" by the White Hutchinson consulting company.)
Classroom spaces need to be big enough for building block towers (and for storage of the blocks so they are easily accessible to little hands), for laying down train tracks and for playing house and restocking "pretend" kitchens. When rooms are too small, teachers spend too much time shuffling students around instead of interacting with them, moving them from one spot to another while they move furniture for circle time or snack.
Some construction projects can be as simple as equipping pre-K classrooms with bathrooms that enable children to reach the sink and toilets by themselves. That way, when children have to go, teachers and assistants can stay in the classroom instead of having to take children down a hallway or to another part of the building.
Consider these striking results from the re-construction of an early childhood facility in West Hartford, Conn: In the old facility, teachers were interacting with children on average only 3 percent of the time. "After the program relocated to a new facility -- where each classroom had a utility sink, storage, telephone, and most importantly, a bathroom for children -- adult-child interactions increased to 22 percent.," according to "Child Care Facilities: Quality by Design," a 2004 report by the national non-profit Local Initiatives Support Corporation.
Constructing well-designed preschools and early learning spaces will not only give a short-term shot in the arm to the economy. It will be a long term investment that can return dividends in school achievement many years down the road. We need to be open-minded to new ways to help with construction for community-based providers as well as programs based in the public schools. Whatever form the stimulus package takes, it must make these investments possible.