NEW HAVEN — Two decades ago, this city grappling with drugs, murders, and middle-class flight confronted another glaring sign of urban decay: dozens of deteriorating school buildings with leaky roofs, malfunctioning boilers, Sputnik-era science labs, and classes relegated to hallways and closets.
City leaders could have resorted to quick fixes used by other cities, such as Boston, which gives bottled water to students instead of replacing lead piping and drinking fountains.
But New Haven officials decided one of the best paths to revitalizing their city rested in shiny new school buildings, which would provide students with the best learning environments for success.
Over the next 20 years, New Haven officials would spend $1.6 billion to renovate or replace nearly all of its 46 schools, an investment that could offer dramatic lessons for Boston as it embarks on its most expansive school construction program in four decades.
Many of New Haven’s schools are breathtaking, featuring designs that draw inspiration from the city’s maritime history or preserve architectural elements of the buildings they replaced.
The buildings, New Haven officials say, have gone a long way toward improving the environments for students and staff by providing good air quality, ample natural light, and space for new programs such as preschool, and the district has reaped savings by installing energy-efficient utility systems.
But New Haven officials caution that the new buildings are not a panacea for improving lackluster student achievement. Construction must go hand in hand with comprehensive districtwide school improvement plans.
Yet, even then, academic gains might pale in comparison to the public confidence a new building can instill, research shows.
“We got a lot done, but we still have a lot of work to do,” said John DeStefano Jr., who served as New Haven’s mayor from 1994 to 2013 and launched the construction program, noting academic performance requires more attention.
A Yale study, for instance, found that while student enrollment increased and reading scores improved in New Haven’s new and renovated schools, math performance remained flat. High school graduation rates also continue to trail state averages by double digits, although they have gone up notably over the past decade, state data show.
But DeStefano marvels at the job his city tackled.
“The buildings were clearly beaten down and worn out,” DeStefano said. “There were cafeterias you wouldn’t want to eat meals in. Biology labs that were generations old. There were windows you would stand next to in the winter that you could feel wind blow through.”
New Haven’s investment also suggests that the $1 billion that Mayor Martin J. Walsh wants to invest over the next 10 years in Boston, which has nearly three times the number of schools, will not go that far, especially given rising school construction costs. About two-thirds of Boston schools were built before World War II, similar to the situation New Haven faced.
Walsh said the city has neglected its school buildings too long, prompting him to launch the “BuildBPS” effort.
“I honestly feel in my heart and by talking with people that BuildBPS is going to make a long-term difference in our district,” Walsh said.
New Haven is among a group of urban systems nationwide — including San Diego, Cleveland, and Washington, D.C. — making significant investments in their facilities.
Urban school buildings nationwide have been rapidly declining because of hundreds of millions of dollars in deferred spending on routine maintenance, according to a 2014 report by the Council of the Great City Schools, an advocacy organization in Washington, D.C.
“The conditions of buildings and equipment, most importantly in classrooms and school support spaces, are deteriorating to the point of hindering the core mission of schools: educating children,” the report found.
The American Society of Civil Engineers recently noted that about a quarter of the nation’s 100,000 school buildings from urban centers to rural areas were in “fair” or “poor” condition.
“Declining enrollment has been driving the neglect,” said Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, based in Washington, D.C., which pushed for a school construction program there and is now assisting other districts.
Many urban systems, she said, struggle to justify the cost of new facilities because they are under pressure from fiscal watchdogs to close schools. Often it takes a combination of political will among city leaders, grass-roots organizing, and occasionally litigation to make ambitious school construction programs a reality, she said.
Boston, grappling with dropping enrollment, has erected only three schools since its last building boom in the 1970s — each opening in 2003. Tight budgets also have forced the school system to delay many routine repairs, although it has renovated some buildings.
In March, the city issued a report that painted a grim picture, finding almost half of Boston’s 125 schools were in fair condition, the middle of a five-step rating scale, and three were in poor condition.
The report did not include a price tag for fixing the problems, but the cost is expected to be steep. Six years ago, Boston estimated that it needed $1.8 billion for new school construction and more than $1 billion for renovations, repairs, and routine maintenance.
Meanwhile, Walsh is shepherding three projects that began under his predecessor: construction of a new Dearborn STEM Academy and finalizing building plans for the Quincy Upper School and Boston Arts Academy. He also is pushing ahead with smaller-scale repairs, such as replacing roofs, boilers, doors, and windows at about a dozen schools.
When New Haven embarked on its building project 20 years ago, it didn’t just want new facilities but also saw it as a vehicle to make structural changes to its system — converting nearly all elementary and middle schools to K-8s and adding preschool.
At its peak, the school system, working with Gilbane Building Company, completed two to five schools a year. It also built a central kitchen, an athletic stadium, and other facilities.
The state covered about 80 percent of the school construction costs, while New Haven paid the rest.
In a novel move, New Haven integrated four buildings from an old wastewater treatment site on its harbor into a new structure, which now houses a regional vocational school that looks almost like a gleaming ship docked at the shores. (The pilings from the building that treated the wastewater, which was demolished because of PCB contamination concerns, were used for the new structure’s foundation.)
In other parts of New Haven, a K-8 school features a facade with a series of curves and sweeping windows that is intended to resemble a fleet of sailboats, and a biotech magnet school, anchored by a former 1888-era observatory, has pitched roofs and gables on its additions.
The crown jewel of the New Haven project is Engineering & Science University Magnet Middle and High School, which opened in February on the University of New Haven campus in neighboring West Haven. The science school features a robotics lab and video studio.
On one recent morning, students gathered around several tables as they studied thermodynamics in a classroom with floor-to-ceiling windows.
“It’s a much better learning environment,” said Alim Rodican, 15, a sophomore.
Principal Medria Blue-Ellis said the high-tech equipment in the building, including 3-D printers, “will allow us to take learning to the next level.”
Kathy Mattern, principal of the Truman School, said that while the new computer labs, science labs, and specialty rooms at her school enhance the learning experience, the biggest difference the 13-year-old renovation has made is a more basic one: “happier students.”James Vaznis can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.