School buildings in crisis

May graduate Alisa Ghura researched safety hazards in school buildings in low-income school districts and examined barriers to change.

When Alisa Ghura enrolled at Penn, she planned to study international relations. As the daughter of immigrants from Mauritius, she often thought about the power dynamics and inequities between countries, particularly as an individual who felt that her “identity was attached to a large superpower, on the one hand, and a small, developing island on the other,” she says.

However, as she spent more time in Philadelphia, she found pressing equity issues all around her. “I realized that a lot of the dynamics around power, race, and inequities that I’d been interested in from an international relations perspective were playing out at the local level,” she says, “particularly in under-resourced urban schools.”

Alisa Ghura.
Alisa Ghura graduated from the College in May. She plans to continue her research on environmental and educational justice at the University of Oxford as a Thouron Scholar. (Image: Courtesy of Alisa Ghura)

Shura graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences in May with a degree in urban studies and political science with a focus on city-level governance and the education system. As a Civic Scholar, Ghura began working with a refugee resettlement group and then within local schools, including as a writing program instructor at Paul Robeson High School through Robeson Writes, a supplemental writing program that she co-founded.

“I began to take a special interest in the education system, particularly the physical environments in which public-school students are meant to learn,” says Ghura, who switched from international relations to a double major in urban studies and political science with a focus on city-level governance and the education system.

The majority of America’s public-school buildings were constructed prior to 1970 and many haven’t had improvements since. “Many public-school facilities in Philadelphia have fallen into disrepair. Through my interviews, parents and students discussed school buildings with suboptimal bathrooms, lead in the water, dangerous structural issues, exposed asbestos, and outdated HVAC systems, for example,” says Ghura, who is also minoring in survey research and data analytics.

Her research question asked: Within local public processes, what are the barriers or challenges to improving school facilities in budget-strapped, low-income, minority school districts? Her research methods included interviews, quantitative analysis of HVAC data and consultant reports, participant-observation ethnography, and an analysis of correspondences with the School District of Philadelphia, its reports, and website.

Ghura found that the local public processes for improvement were hindered by two barriers: an overreliance on consultant data and analysis, and missed opportunities for building trust and gaining input from the community.

This story is by Katelyn Silva. Read more at OMNIA.