Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A step ahead at city schools


This is part of what it means to live in a poor city.

It's not just more crime, aging infrastructure and fewer opportunities. Living in a place like Bridgeport also means your kids are more likely to get sick.

A laudable program from the federal Environmental Protection Agency aims to improve that situation. It's a good idea and deserves support.

The problem in this case involves what are called "asthma triggers" in schools, which cause mold and other air-quality issues, which in turn account for many cases of childhood asthma. A leaky roof is a prime example -- rainwater soaks into the building rather than running off to the ground; the nooks and crannies the water seeps into provide a home for mold to build up, and those spores bring about asthma. That means clogged airways and difficulty breathing.

It's not that the suburbs are immune from such maladies. But in a city where schools are in use for 100 years or more, the chances of problems like this developing are many times higher. The numbers show Connecticut's largest cities, including Bridgeport, send more than three times the number of children to the hospital for asthma attacks as the rest of the state. That's a lot of lost instruction time, and one more reason why poor schools struggle with test scores compared to those in richer towns.

The EPA program looks to root out such asthma triggers before they do damage. And it has shown success elsewhere, with a 21.2 percent drop in asthma outbreaks in Hartford the year after the program started, and larger gains elsewhere. With more than 40 percent of cases centered in the state's five largest cities, it's clear where the most help is needed.

There's more to asthma than just leaky roofs. Studies have shown the closer a school sits to a major highway, with the accompanying heavy load of particulate matter in the air from all those vehicles passing through, the higher the asthma rate. In Bridgeport and places like it, schools historically aren't built all that often, and in some cases the buildings that were there before the interstates came through are still in use. In other towns, those facilities might have been replaced with something that's not a magnet for truck exhaust, and the sicknesses that can bring.

When broken down piece by piece, the challenges faced every day by students at struggling schools can seem overwhelming. But the only way to take them on is one at a time. Though it won't change the world, a program that could cut down on asthma attacks brought on by substandard facilities is worth supporting.

And we need many more like it.

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