Noise Pollution in the Classroom
Teaching Disrupted by Airport Noise
Karen Kulunian doesn't need a team
of scientific researchers to tell her that her daughter's school has a noise problem. In fact, she doesn't even need to venture into the classroom.
"If you stand outside my daughter's elementary school, you see the planes fly directly over the building," says this Rhode Island mom. Her sixth-grader's school, the John Brown Francis Elementary, stands near the rapidly growing T.F. Green Airport in Warwick. On stormy or foggy days, school staffers observe, the jets fly even lower. In a survey taken several years ago, every one of the school's teachers said they were forced to stop lessons because of noise from planes, as often as ten times a day. Do the disruptions affect the learning process? Many parents and teachers believe they do.
"From what my own child has told me and what studies I've seen, after a while the noise affects children's whole being and thinking," explains Kulunian. "If you're sitting in a room and over time you know there's going to be a noise approaching, there's an anticipation. 'When is that noise going to occur? How loud will it be? Is my teacher going to stop? How are we going to get back on track?'"
Studies Show Noise, Delayed Reading Link
Research dating back more than 20 years confirms Kulunian's impressions. A landmark 1975 study by Arlene Bronzaft, Ph.D., found that students at a New
York City school whose classrooms faced elevated train tracks suffered significant reading delays, when measured against students not exposed to the same exterior noise. Six years later, after the school installed soundproofing and rubber resilient pads were placed on the train tracks, a follow-up study revealed that children's' reading deficits had been eliminated.
A 1996 study co-authored by Gary Evans, professor of design and environmental analysis and human development at Cornell University, also found a link between noise exposure and delays in reading proficiency. The study, comparing first and second-grade students in a quiet neighborhood school with those attending a school in the flight path of a major airport, found that kids in the noisier classrooms learned to tune out speech. This, in turn, affected their reading and language skills.
"What happens is, children become used to the noise," explains Evans. "It's not only that they tune out the noise of the airplane -- they tune out everything."
Although the loss of instructional time is one barrier to learning -- in some major cities, plane landings and takeoffs near schools occur every few minutes -- researchers say noise pollution has other, more insidious effects. Perhaps most disturbing, Evans suggests, is newly emerging evidence that the coping mechanism student's develop -- the ability to shut out sounds, not only transportation noise but also a teacher's voice -- becomes the norm, even in quieter conditions.
"A very interesting and important question is, what about all those children with learning disabilities or those for whom English is not a first language?" Evans asks. "It's reasonable to speculate that they are even more vulnerable."
Schools Still Must Make Noise To Get Soundproofing
Despite the research, soundproofing is rarely an easy or complete solution. For two years, Karen Kalunian and other concerned parents in Warwick have been embroiled
in a battle to get funding to soundproof their elementary school. Despite its proximity to the Green Airport, the school was initially deemed to be outside a designated "noise contour line," and therefore ineligible for funding under FAA guidelines. The school appealed and finally won approval, but as Kalunian notes wryly, "getting approval and getting it done are worlds apart." From testing the building to bidding out the work, she predicts it will probably be another two years before the soundproofing job is even begun. By then, her daughter will have graduated.
"They make schools go through this complicated procedure because the FAA doesn't give this abatement money that easily," echoes Aline Bronzaft. "I think it's evil. My study came out 25 years ago, and every study since has shown the same thing about noise and learning. Yet every community has to fight for this money. The commitment isn't there."
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