Far too many of Rhode Island’s children go to school every day in dangerously crumbling and obsolete school buildings. In fact, the Rhode Island School Building Authority has calculated that the average age of school buildings across our state is approximately 58 years.
It would be an understatement to say that things have changed since John F. Kennedy’s first year in office. This number is even higher for Cranston’s schools, with an average age of 64 years, harkening back to the Eisenhower years of the 1950s. This generally makes many of them fit more for use as sets in “Back to the Future” than as 21st century learning spaces.
But still, many buildings are indeed even older, their cornerstones having been laid at the dawn of the Jazz Age and have since served as educational time capsules of a bygone era long after the speakeasies closed, the Flappers became centenarians and the Calvin Coolidge years were effaced from living memory.
This situation is, at the same time, no one’s fault and everyone’s fault. It is just something that many of us have grown up with for better or worse. Nonetheless, the sense of nostalgia for the schools we adults attended and subsequent salutary neglect have morphed into a modern public opprobrium resulting from decades of deferred maintenance, slender budgets, a lack of political will to address the problem and, not to mention, the largest economic crisis since the Great Depression.
The recent Johns Hopkins report shed light on some of the worst cases in our state in the Providence Public Schools last year but merely scratched the surface of wider problem. The report, rightfully, raised a considerable amount of public righteous indignation. The deleterious conditions of many of the school buildings across our state pose a host of health, safety and educational challenges. They accentuate pernicious achievement gaps, engender and perpetuate social and economic inequality, the effects of which will impact children for the rest of their lives.
Our public schools form the nexus where education, social mobility and economic development live simultaneously and should not be overlooked as a critical piece of public economic infrastructure. They have the potential to fuel our economy into the next century.
Fortunately, Cranston leads the way with a comprehensive plan to transform the city’s schools into 21st century educational locomotives and is poised to take advantage of a once-in-a-generation incentive to be reimbursed by the state approximately 60 cents for every dollar invested in school construction and renovations. The approval of the necessary bond issue, which will appear on the ballot for this purpose next November, is as much a moral imperative as it is an economic and educational one.
Other communities across our state should follow suit. Education, like real estate, is an appreciating asset. The dividends of investing in modern school facilities makes smart economic sense and will provide immeasurable public benefit for years to come.
In order for our children to gain the skills they need to be successful in the 21st century, they need schools that fit the times. We should stop using dead presidents to measure the age of our schools and invest them in our children’s future.
The author is executive director of the Cranston Area Career and Technical Center and the former principal of Johnston High School.