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LETTER GRADE GIVEN TO U.S. SCHOOL BUILDINGS BY ENGINEERS

D

Pointing to aging buildings and a downward trend in construction and maintenance spending, the American Society of Civil Engineers says schools are near flunking.

A CHARTER SCHOOL CAN'T MEET ITS MISSION

BALTIMORE FREEDOM ACADEMY, BALTIMORE

Josiah Richardson, 17, has big dreams-he'd like to go to Yale-and was once excited about this academically well-regarded charter school helping him. Until the day he arrived as a freshman. "It was dark. There were no lights," Richardson, now a junior, recalls. "And they never came on." Broken lights are the least of this ambitious young school's problems. Its 1960s-era building hasn't had any major upkeep since its construction, and its students, many of whom do go on to good colleges, must sometimes dodge falling ceiling tiles and skittering roaches.. Bathrooms are missing stall doors and operable sinks. "I wouldn't send my own children to a building in this state," admits BFA executive director Khalilah Harris, 32, who is trying to get a private loan for repairs. "This space doesn't show that adults place a priority on schools, and students rightly think, 'My education is not very important to you,' " says Harris. But Richardson isn't letting the physical plant get in his way. "If the ceiling is falling down on me, I'll move my desk. I'm going to succeed."

NUMBER OF KIDS ATTENDING A HIGH-POVERTY SCHOOL

1 IN 6

Reading and math scores are lower in impoverished schools, and only 28 percent of graduates will attend college, compared with 52 percent of those from wealthier districts, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

OVERRUN BY OVERCROWDING

FANNIE BUSH ELEMENTARY, WINCHESTER, KY.

Last fall Fannie Bush principal Angela Taylor, 45, felt as if she had the fire department on speed dial. First, several water pipes burst, and even after the flooding stopped, water had to be brought in by the bucket for a day. Next, a sewer line in one of the 54-year-old school's never-updated bathrooms broke, spewing raw waste into the hall. "We have," says Taylor with a rueful laugh, "some challenges." Among them: a gym that doubles as a cafeteria (making it necessary to move tables and mop floors before phys ed can begin) and a school nurse treating sick kids in a closet. Despite that, Bush is one of the area's most desirable schools. Enrollment is so high that 29 kids squeeze into rooms built for 20, or spill into hallways. "Learning centers can't be set up like they should be when we don't have the room," says teacher Mary Lou Warren, 47. But Taylor and her staff do what they can. Librarian Cheri Farmer, 49, built bookshelves, and when she found "major mold" in the library, "I scrubbed it myself with bleach." That dedication inspires parents like Susan Mitmesser, 43, who lives outside the district but got special permission for her daughter Emma, 10, to attend. "The school is in sad shape," she says. "But the teachers make it an excellent place."

THE COST TO BRING U.S. SCHOOLS INTO GOOD REPAIR

$322 BILLION

To make fixes like renovating aging buildings, constructing new schools to handle swelling enrollments nationwide, and equipping existing schools with wiring for technology, requires billions more than the current average-$20 billion spent per year-according to the National Education Association.

WHERE THE WALLS CAME TUMBLING DOWN

DENMARK-OLAR ELEMENTARY SCHOOL,

DENMARK, S.C.

Before breakfast on June 1, the day before summer vacation began, Denmark-Olar's cafeteria ceiling caved in, leaving the staff and students shaken but miraculously unhurt. The ceiling was repaired by the time school began this fall, but many other problems remain. "Where do I start?" says superintendent Jake Sello, 58. "Paint is peeling. Windows are cracked. There is no air-conditioning. It is hard on the kids." Principal Tonya Thomas, 36, worries about students being able to focus when they are "too hot or too cold." But in a struggling community with 98 percent of the student body on free or reduced lunch, "I don't have the ability to raise funds," says Sello. Instead, staffers extend themselves in other ways. "I have kids over to my house after school to tutor them," says librarian Brenda Hughes Jeffery, 54. In her 31 years, she says she has seen few improvements and observes that "kids notice when things are falling apart." Fifth grader Destiny Sojourner, 10, loves playing with friends and jumping rope at recess but says, "It would make it better if we could run without having to trip over the old boards in the gym." Her mother, Lasonia, applauds the "unity at the school," but, like many parents, she feels that "students could improve if these things could be fixed."

NUMBER OF SCHOOL DAYS MISSED ACROSS AMERICA DUE TO CHILDHOOD ASTHMA

14.4 MILLION

Mold caused by leaks as well as ventilation problems exacerbate asthma and other breathing problems in kids, contributing to absences, says the American Lung Association.