Reprinted from Portland Tribune. First appeared as an opinion piece on the Portland Tribune.
Overflowing toilets, dead mice littering the hallways, mold growing in sinks, and broken windows are all things I experience daily in my school.
While the conditions of public schools often can be shocking, it is frequently left out of the conversations about improving our education system until it becomes a publicized health hazard, such as the water in Portland Public Schools.
While the cleanliness of schools may seem trivial compared to the other issues our education system faces, I believe it has a major impact on student engagement. Filthy school buildings lead to students not wanting to go to school in the most basic sense.
Poor school conditions are not conducive to a healthy learning environment for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the most obvious are the health risks to students. School buildings in Portland Public Schools contain everything from radon to lead in the water to asbestos — all of which are known to be dangerous toward human health.
However, I have been spending at least 35 hours a week in this environment for 12 years. Knowing that the building I spend the majority of my time in could harm my health is unsettling to say the least. The place where students are mandated to be seven hours a day should not pose potential dangers.
Additionally, Portland Public Schools has known about these health risks for years and did not take adequate steps to fix the problems. The former superintendent of our district knew that students were drinking lead in the water years before the public was aware.
When radon was found in the floors of a classroom, cardboard was simply placed over a portion of the floor. I am lucky that my school currently is being remodeled. However, the majority of schools in my district will have to wait years before they receive the changes necessary to be deemed a safe environment.
When students know that their school is dangerous for their health, it is only natural that they will not be engaged in school. No one wants to spend time in a place that is visibly dirty and unsafe. When the building is so dirty, it becomes a joke within the student body.
Slowly, other aspects of school become a joke as well, and eventually school is not taken seriously by students. Neglected buildings send the message that the school does not care about its students, thus making it hard for me and many other students to care about school. We need to have clean and safe buildings not only for health reasons, but also to show students that they are cared about.
While funding is continuously in crisis, we need to start having conversations about school conditions and make it more of a priority. We don't need marvelous libraries and carpeted floors, but students deserve a safe and clean learning environment.
At the very least, every school should be equipped with adequate custodial staff to keep the school clean. Something as simple as having a clean building could make drastic impacts on students' view of their schools and their education as a whole.
Amelia Ernst is a junior at Grant High School and program manager of Empower for Oregon Student Voice.