Award-Winning Air Quality

February 24, 2014

Tolle Graham, MassCOSH’s Union and Healthy Schools Coordinator, has a very special relationship with the Trotter Elementary School in Roxbury. It’s where she sent her own children when they were younger and now it’s where she works closely with school staff to make the building a poster child for efforts to improve environmental building conditions. This past January, the American Lung Association recognized Graham and her colleagues at the Trotter School for their efforts, an honor years in the making.
As one of the oldest school systems in the country, Boston schools suffer from maladies many old buildings do: leaky roofs, pests, mold, and old windows. These conditions greatly lower environmental building conditions and indoor air quality and have been known to cause and worsen asthma for school staff and students.
“Besides asthma, a lot of teachers get chronic sinus infections, we hear a lot about chronic [throat] hoarseness, sinus surgery among staff is something that’s very, very common,” said Graham. “We also know that went it comes to students, poor conditions can lead to lower school performance and higher absentee rates.”
In order to ensure maximum student performance and reduce occupational illness among school staff, MassCOSH, the Boston Public School Department and the City Health Commission have joined forces under the name of the Healthy Schools Task Force. The task force has been a key player in ensuring schools conduct mandated annual school condition inspections, where trained staff look for issues such as mold, pest, leaks and other hazards that impair air quality. The Trotter school has been a particularly great example of monitoring school conditions and mitigating hazards, thanks to champions such as school nurse Margaret VanCleve-Rocchio.
“When I started my work as the Trotter School Nurse six years ago, I was overwhelmed by the number of students with uncontrolled asthma,” said VanCleve-Rocchio. “For the first year, I resisted the idea that the school environment could be exacerbating asthma. I began to question my resistance to the idea of the school being a trigger when I saw the dramatic decrease in asthma exacerbations after the school was cleared from years of clutter. I was convinced that the school environment has a major impact on the learning and health of our students with asthma.”
Thanks to VanCleve-Rocchio, Graham and other school staff, Trotter’s overall efforts have been recognized twice at the Boston Public Schools Wellness Summit for their comprehensive efforts to improve conditions. Starting this past January, these hard workers can now also consider themselves national leaders in the effort to improve indoor air quality for all those who work and learn in school buildings.
The American Lung Association’s Asthma-Friendly Schools Initiative (AFSI) Champion Awards are given in recognition of schools that have taken positive strides to create a healthier learning environment and the organization’s Silver Champion Award can now be seen proudly displayed in the Totter school halls. The Silver Award was given to the school after meeting critical components an Asthma-Friendly School, including: Maximizing School Health Services, Providing Asthma Education to Faculty, Students and Parents, Providing a Healthy School Environment and Managing Physical Education & Activity.
“Asthma is a serious lung disease that threatens the health of millions of children and hinders their ability to learn and play,” said Harold Wimmer, national president and CEO of the American Lung Association. “The AFSI Champion Awards put a spotlight on the important work being done to address the burden of asthma on schools nationwide.”
The Healthy Schools Task Force sees improvements made at Trotter as a small victory in the larger fight to improve environmental building conditions in every Massachusetts school building.
“Incorporating environmental health action steps into Boston’s schools newly released School Wellness Policy is leading to environmental health improvements not only at Trotter, but at other schools across the city,” said Graham. “Our actions and Boston’s new wellness policy should be seen as a model for other school districts across the Commonwealth.”

Inspired? Then please Join us to celebrate the publication of:  THE TOXIC SCHOOLHOUSE
Chuck Levenstein, Workmen’s Circle member and co-editor along with Madeline Kangsen Scammell of The Toxic Schoolhouse, and Tolle Graham, Acting for Economic Justice co-chair and author/contributor of Who’s Sick at School: Linking Poor School Conditions and Health Disparities for Boston’s Children - invite you to join them for a short roundtable discussion and celebration for the recent publication of The Toxic Schoolhouse. Click here for details.