Too hot to learn: The crumbling school infrastructure in Baltimore City and County

The recent reports on suspected cheating on standardized tests at some Baltimore City schools included the statement that school officials worry they might "have hit a wall in educating children." Some of those walls have been in place for a long time in Maryland public schools — and they are dilapidated and moldy.

Baltimore City and Baltimore County have the oldest school buildings in the state, and fewer than half of their schools have decent climate control, either in the hot months or the cold months. When schools were closed early for three days in June, the heat index in several Ridgely Middle School classrooms in Baltimore County ranged from 108 to 116 degrees at the early closing times.

Temperatures of 80 degrees and above are common for weeks on end in Baltimore County in the fall and spring, and temperatures in the city are usually higher. Teachers cannot teach effectively, and students cannot learn effectively, for long periods when temperatures exceed 80 degrees. Teachers and students have fainted in hot classrooms in Baltimore County, but to our knowledge no school officials are tracking heat or environmentally related health problems for students and teachers in city or county schools. It is high time that television crews were allowed into public schools in Maryland, with thermometers, so that we can all see the terrible conditions in some of them.

Only a few of the 180 school buildings in Baltimore City have working water fountains because of the fear of lead contamination, so water bottles are trucked in. Prince George's County schools also have serious infrastructure problems.

Research shows that deteriorating buildings without decent equipment, natural lighting or climate/ventilation control have a major effect on teacher retention and student learning. We expect our children and their teachers to work effectively in conditions most of us would not even consider in an interior workplace. These are infrastructure problems, not evaluation problems, and they have an adverse effect on the time spent learning every single day.

The only way to fix our rapidly deteriorating school infrastructure in all jurisdictions, but especially in the three neediest mentioned above, is to create a statewide, sustained plan for repairing and renovating schools, with major financial commitments from local governments. Nancy Kopp, our state treasurer, described the "crisis" in Maryland public school construction in her overview of school conditions in 2004, but with the exception of the tax on alcohol, state and local legislators seem to have basically ignored her suggestions for funding school infrastructure projects. Neither Baltimore County nor Baltimore City has yet taken full responsibility for rebuilding its public schools (although Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has appointed a task force to look into ways to raise funds). Local governments throughout the state must be willing to commit to better funding of public schools. No matter where they live, everyone in Maryland has a vested interest in a good education for all children in the state.

Cheating is not excusable, but neither is the current obsession with test scores at the expense of the health and well-being of children and teachers struggling in hot, or cold, deteriorating classrooms. Let us hope that Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Andrés Alonso includes classroom temperatures, health issues and infrastructure, in his proposed assessments of schools. Policies making school infrastructure funding a priority would also be welcome in other jurisdictions.

And let us not forget that the goals of a good education should include excitement and joy, and the belief in something beyond the self — not just how well a kid performs on a test.

Laurie Taylor-Mitchell, a Towson resident, works on school infrastructure issues in Baltimore County public schools. Her email is lmitchell4@comcast.net. Lois Hybl is president of the League of Women Voters of Baltimore City and a director of the Maryland Education Coalition. Her email is lhybl@verizon.net.