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Special Report: A School Without Windows

El Mensajero, News Report, Erika Cebreros, translated by Elena Shore Posted: Aug 07, 2009

Students and teachers at a high school in northern California have one simple demand: to breathe fresh air in a school with poor ventilation and very few windows.

RICHMOND, Calif. Richmond residents face problems like violence, poverty and pollution, but a group of teachers and students in the city have another concern. They have been fighting to change something that is rarely discussed in U.S. schools: indoor air quality.

This is because breathing fresh air is simply not an option for many at Richmond High School. Only 20 of the 80 classrooms have windows, and the ventilation is poor throughout the school. About 70 percent of the schools 1,700 students are Latino, the majority of them low-income.

No Complaints

Teachers and students have called on the school district to make changes, but there havent been any complaints from parents.

They think that you get in trouble when you speak up and complain about something and theyd rather not Maybe they dont know they can complain, said teacher Mary Kadri, who noted that the majority of the parents are immigrants. Theyre grateful to be in this country, she said, and they might not want to be perceived as ungrateful.

A lot of them come from countries where its dangerous to complain, said Karl Smith, who teaches an English as a Second Language (ESL) class for adults during the evening at Richmond High School.

They never complain because we dont share any concerns about our school with them, said former student Dionisio "Tony" Colindres, adding that long days of work prevent many parents from getting more involved in their childrens education.

I have never heard the parents complaining. I wish that they would, I wish that we all would, said English teacher Rebekah Ponce-Larsen. If we did something dramatic, she said, such as organize a walk-out, maybe they [the school authorities] would listen.

If immigrant parents dont complain, it doesnt mean that they arent interested in their childrens education, according to Marn Trujillo, spokesperson for the West Contra Costa Unified School District. Often, he said, they dont understand how the educational system in this country works.
Some teachers and students compare the school to a prison, others to a concentration camp. We feel like were in prison and I think because of that, some students act like theyre in jail where they break things and act like fools, said student Kami Baker, describing the impact of the situation on her classmates morale.

The building was remodeled in the late 1960s in the style of an open-space school, part of an architectural movement characterized by its wide-open spaces.

Over time, these large, undivided rooms became traditional classrooms, and although the space doesnt seem to be a problem, the environment is airtight. For many, being enclosed is suffocating.

The schools Heating, Ventilation, and Air-Conditioning (HVAC) system hasnt worked well for several years.

But the buildings structure and ventilation problems dont just affect the students morale. It also impacts their health and their ability to learn the primary goal of education.

Common Problem

It is well-known that humans breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide (CO2), a component that can be toxic in high levels.

Barbara Spark, indoor air program coordinator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)s Region 9, which includes California, said the recommended level of CO2 in a classroom is 1,000 ppm (parts per million).

A study conducted last year by a group of students found that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the school exceeded this level.

The students conducted the study, titled An Inconvenient Truth, through the Health Academy, a special course.

In 14 of the 18 classrooms tested, they found a carbon dioxide concentration of 2,000 to 3,000 ppm.
Spark did not consider these results to be toxic or poisonous.

However, she said that feeling sleepy and not being able to concentrate are common symptoms in poorly ventilated environments, and can affect the ability to learn.

A dozen students interviewed for this report described similar symptoms. I cant even concentrate. I am trying to wake up and my eyes are kind of going up and down, said 17-year-old Sahiv Shrestha.

His classmate, Adriana Ramrez, said, You feel like you cant breathe.

Dionisio Colindres, who participated in the project An Inconvenient Truth and is now in college, said that during the afternoon classes it was not uncommon to see several students asleep or spaced out.

In June 2008, some of the Health Academy students presented the results of their study before the school board of the West Contra Costa Unified School District. But the problem persisted.

Marn Trujillo, spokesperson for the district, said the Richmond High School HVAC system is currently being repaired. We hope that the system will be ready and running by the time the kids return to school next school year, Trujillo said.

Richmond High School teacher Mary Kadri, who has been at the forefront of the fight to improve the indoor air quality often referred to as IAQ -- in the school, says she has heard this argument for years now and has little faith that the ventilation problems will disappear by Aug. 25, when classes begin.

Kadri, who suffers from asthma, said that since she started working in the building about 11 years ago, the heating, ventilation and air conditioning has never worked at its full capacity; it works in some classrooms but not in others. It seems like theyre just moving the problem from one area to another, said the social science teacher, one of the leaders of the Health Academy.

English teacher Rebekah Ponce-Larsen, who took part in the Health Academy, said the system in her classroom didnt work throughout 2008. Her classroom, like Kadris, has no windows.

Both teachers described some of the strategies they have used to improve the ventilation and atmosphere in their classrooms: They try to keep the room clean and have bought fans with their own money.

Ponce-Larsen, with the help of her students and donations she received, painted her classroom a light violet color so it would look less depressing. But there is only so much you can do when you dont have fresh air, she said.

It Could Be Worse Than They Know

Katharine Hammond, environmental health science professor at UC Berkeleys School of Public Health, said there might even be other contaminating agents inside the school that they dont know about.

These could come from construction materials, cleaning products and materials used by students such as glue, paint, sprays and fragrances.

These products are commonly used in schools, but when there is adequate ventilation, the contamination doesnt accumulate.

Hammond added that a more thorough investigation is needed.

Hammond and Spark agree that those who suffer from asthma could be the most affected. Several reports indicate that asthma is the main cause of absences from U.S. schools.

According to the report, Community Health Indicators for Contra Costa County, conducted in 2007 by the countys Department of Health

Services, children living in San Pablo and Richmond have significantly higher hospitalization rates for asthma than children in other communities.

Student Vanessa Bejarano, who has had asthma since she was little, says her asthma has gotten worse since going to Richmond High School, which she described as unhealthy.

Luxury vs. Necessity

When asked if there were plans to conduct more studies on indoor air quality, Richmond High School Principal Julio Francos response was negative. My emphasis and our communitys emphasis is more on the academics. This school wont be renovated for some time, so the environment and whether they have windows isnt such a pressing concern.

Spark, of the U.S. EPA, wasnt surprised by Francos response. She said many school principals consider the quality of indoor air a luxury and not a necessity.

For her part, teacher Mary Kadri said, I know that our kids can overcome challenges, but I just do not think that bad air circulation and bad air have to be one of those challenges.
I think that they face enough challenges without that, she concluded.

This story was researched and reported with a fellowship from The California Endowment and The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.


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