Last Monday, we were pleased to welcome the U.S. Department of Education to Providence schools, on its visit to Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts – as part of the second leg of the ‘Education Built to Last’ Facilities Best Practices Tour. Schools like the Providence Career and Technical Academy and the Nathan Bishop Middle School function as living classrooms. They are places for great instruction about the environment, and they are models for effective, efficient, and beautiful design and construction that allow schools to reach their full potential as effective learning environments.
From Providence, the multi-state delegation, including federal, state and local officials and stakeholders, traveled to three Title I schools in Connecticut, including one with a 20-acre demonstration farm on a state park within a city that succeeded in doubling test scores in just four years, also aligning its environmental education curriculum to Common Core; another with an on-site nature center, full-time park ranger, and health center; and a third, LEED Platinum facility, complete with greenhouse, planetarium, butterfly vivarium, aquatics lab and resident scientists.
Next, the group traveled to Massachusetts to visit two Collaborative for High Performance verified schools, including a high school whose ‘Green Scholars’ program students wowed their guests (including the building designer, now Rhode Island’s own facilities director) with their knowledge of their impressive school building; and another warm school community preparing students for 15 career and technical certifications in a state-of-the art facility specially equipped for automotive, construction, early learning, health sciences, broadcasting and fashion design, among other specialized programs, while still ensuring all graduates are four-year college-ready.
Every one of these schools featured modern, educationally enhancing and resource-efficient use of indoor space, whether in new or lovingly restored historic facilities, extensive use of outdoor classrooms, such as edible gardens, as well as the effective use of the actual school building as a learning tool about green technologies and the complex interactions between humans and the environment.
Schools throughout the region can look forward to the New England Sustainable Schools Summit, in November, here in Rhode Island, and yet another opportunity to integrate facility, health and education, as with the ED-Green Ribbon Schools award Pillars. As we work in New England toward making sure that all of our schools are “built to last,” we have the benefit of working with many friends of education:
- in our school districts;
- in higher education;
- in the building and construction industries;
- in the food-service industries;
- in the nonprofit sector; and, of course,
- at the U.S. Department of Education.
As Rhode Island Governor, Lincoln D. Chafee, remarked on Monday at the tour’s opening session: “Rhode Islanders deserve a public education system that challenges our students in the right way — with inspiring teachers, clean and safe classrooms, and the chance to succeed in careers and in life.” Throughout New England, we are striving toward that ideal in our school facilities. For example, in Rhode Island, we recently completed our first statewide Public Schoolhouse Assessment, which includes many recommendations for financing and supporting school construction and renovation that may also be instructive to other states.
As the Facilities Tour moves on to New York City and northern New Jersey on August 13th and to Milwaukee, Wisconsin area on the 22nd and 23rd, I am pleased that we in New England have been able to offer some ideas and examples of how to improve the quality of schools – and school buildings – all while conserving natural resources and taxpayer dollars.
Deborah A. Gist is Rhode Island’s Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education