A school district's mold infestation leads to modernization

By: | September 22, 2017

Mold growth at California’s Klamath-Trinity Joint USD three years ago was an asset in disguise.

Mold growth at California’s Klamath-Trinity Joint USD three years ago was an asset in disguise. It required the district to reconstruct six of its seven schools, a $65 million endeavor that superintendent Jon Ray saw as an opportunity.

His classrooms were out of date and lacked the latest technology, so Ray decided to not only renovate the rooms, but to modernize his learning spaces.

“We weren’t going to just put a Band-Aid on the problem,” Ray says. “We were going to fix it right by changing the way we taught, and giving students a first-class learning institute they could be proud of.”

With state funding and state politicians who advocated on behalf of the district, Klamath-Trinity reconstructed its buildings and filled them with new technology and furniture.

Students in grades 3 through 8 now use interactive whiteboards and can hear their teachers better thanks to surround sound speakers. Desks are movable and can connect with other desks for group projects.

As the district continues to upgrade classrooms, it is also embarking on a $40 million initiative to give all K8 students a Windows-powered Chromebook and to issue iPads to each high school student.

“After eight years of using Windows and four years on Macs, students will be proficient in both formats by the time they graduate,” says Ray.

Klamath-Trinity Joint USD

  • 1,053 students
  • 85% of students live on nontaxable Native American reservations
  • 90% of residents do not pay any state income tax
  • 90% of students are Native American
  • 90% of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch

Seeking solutions

A mold, lead and asbestos problem had already been discovered in one of the elementary schools when Ray was hired in June 2014. “It was like opening Pandora’s box,” says Ray.

After finding problems in other buildings, Ray closed gyms, kitchens, cafeterias, libraries, administrative offices and multiple classrooms at six of the district’s seven schools.

Quarantining classrooms and cafeterias limited where teachers could teach and where students could eat. Educators taught in hallways and on covered outdoor walkways, while the district purchased food trailers from private caterers to feed students.

Seeking funds was also a challenge. California districts receive school construction funding through the State of California’s General Obligation (GO) bonds according to a formula based on local property and income taxes.

But many families in the Klamath-Trinity district live on nontaxable Native American reservations, and most do not pay California income tax. As a result, the district collected only about $4 million from the GO bonds, leaving $61 million to be found from other sources.

Ray spearheaded the plan to close the gap in 2016 in part by reaching out to his state representatives, who helped the district gain state funding due to the presence of mold, asbestos and lead as a health and safety concern.

Realistic renovations

Ray wanted to ensure his schools met ADA requirements and earthquake safety standards. ADA regulations were met by widening doorways and adjusting the height of bathroom sinks and water fountains. Seismic upgrades required architects to bolt cabinets to the walls and to stabilize buildings by installing larger footings in the floor.

The electrical system also received upgrades: Most rooms had only three or fewer outlets, and plugging in multiple devices usually shorted the circuit. Construction teams moved overhead power lines underground because wires blocked tall delivery trucks and were sometimes knocked down by large trees during storms, causing power outages.

In addition, the district upgraded the heating system from diesel boilers to propane and natural gas. It also installed A/C and high-efficiency particulate air filters.

Special monitors, new testing

Every classroom in the district now has a smartboard and a Prowise touchscreen—a computer monitor that can handle up to 15 users simultaneously.

“An instructor can teach from both screens simultaneously or have some students on a smartboard, a few on the Prowise and the rest on their Chromebooks or iPads,” says Ray.

The funding for the mold remediation project also enabled the district to expand student assessment initiatives. With each student getting a Chromebook or iPad, the district implemented diagnostic testing from the Northwest Evaluation Association.

“Struggling students can tackle an easier course load without other students finding out, so kids aren’t embarrassed,” Ray adds.

Unexpected benefits

Since the district created the classrooms a year ago, student performance, morale and achievement have increased.

For the first time, 56 percent of students are at or above the Common Core standard in English, Ray says. Attendance rates have also risen from 88 percent in 2013 to 96 percent last spring. (State average is 95 percent.)

Meanwhile, the rate of students performing at or above state level in every subject and all grade levels have risen from 8 percent to 24 percent in the same four-year period.

“From the air students breathe all the way up to the technology they use, the classrooms provide students with a totally different environment from what they had before,” says Ray.

Steven Wyman-Blackburn is web editor.