Noise: Federal Program Helps Shield Some Schools Near Airports

By Susan Walton — March 21, 1984 11 min read
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Just over a mile from East Boston High School, departing jets accelerate down a runway at Boston’s Logan Airport and, noses pointed skyward, ascend over the school. On days when runway use is heavy--a circumstance that depends on the season and the winds--a jet may fly over the school as often as every two minutes.

During the overflight, which lasts between 45 and 60 seconds, the noise generated by the plane may reach 100 decibels outside the school--a level characterized as “very noisy” by an airport official.

“I look out my window and I see the airport a mile and a half away,’' said John Poto, headmaster of the 1,200-student high school. “So the noise, at times, was unbearable.”

A noise survey conducted in 1981 found that as much as 17 percent of the teaching day was lost to the ascending jets. “Teachers had to stop talking,” said Claire Barrett, assistant director of aviation for external affairs at Massport, the state transportation agency. “You can imagine what that did to the train of thought.”

The jets still zoom regularly over East Boston High School, but the school is now a much quieter place. Over the course of two summers, the school’s 300 windows were replaced by acoustically tight windows, each with two layers of glass and a tough outer layer intended to stop both noise and vandals.

The relative quiet that now prevails in the East Boston school was paid for largely through a Federal Aviation Administration program that provides money for airports’ “noise compatibility” planning and programs. The funds were approved as part of the 1982 Airport and Airway Improvement Act. Soundproofing and other noise-abatement measures are among the projects eligible for funding under the program.

First School Soundproofed

East Boston High School was the first school to be soundproofed under the faa program. As is the case for all abatement projects paid for through the program, the federal agency provided 80 percent of the money; 20 percent came from the local transit authority.

Schools must compete with other public buildings for the limited amounts of funding available, according to faa officials, and an increasing number seem interested in doing so. During fiscal 1984, funds were allotted to soundproof schools in and around South San Francisco, Pittsburgh, New York, and New Jersey, as well as for three more schools near Logan Airport in Boston.

There are no statistics available on the number of schools that are close enough to airports to be significantly affected by the noise they generate. There are, however, about 500 airports in the United States that employ faa-licensed air-traffic controllers--one indication that a facility is large enough to create bothersome noise levels.

In Boston, perhaps 15 to 20 schools are within earshot of Logan, according to Ms. Barrett. In metropolitan New York City, which has three major commercial airports, “it’s a big number--I’d be afraid to guess,” said James Muldoon, manager of the office of aircraft noise abatement at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

faa officials are quick to point out that the chances that the agency will provide money to all affected schools are extremely slim. But they and others also note that schools can take steps to lessen the effects of noise--lowering ceilings, for example--that are not as costly as installing new windows but that nevertheless reduce sound levels.

Such structural changes may also be used to lower the level of noise from other sources as well. There are, however, no federal programs aimed at controlling noise at schools that are near highways or train stations.

Noise and Learning

Noise around schools--from elevated trains, highways, and other sources, as well as airports--is becoming a topic of increasing interest to researchers, chiefly psychologists. Although one researcher discussed the issue of noise and school location as early as 1946, it has been mostly within the past 10 years that scientists have found that the damage wrought by noise is not confined to hearing.

One key finding has been that the level of noise to which children are exposed, either at home or at school, is linked to various aspects of learning.

“Study after study seems to support this,” said Arline L. Bronzaft, professor of psychology at Herbert Lehman College in the Bronx. Ms. Bronzaft, who is a consultant for the New York City Transit Authority on the problem of noise abatement in schools, conducted a pioneering study on the effects of elevated-train noise on children’s reading ability. At P.S. 98, one of about 55 New York City public schools located within 150 yards of subway tracks, classes near the train tracks were disrupted every four and a half minutes for an interval of 30 seconds, according to Ms. Bronzaft.

The study found that the children in classrooms on the noisy side of the building had lower reading scores than those on the quiet side. A follow-up study, conducted several years after the transit authority installed rubber padding on the tracks to muffle the noise, found that the scores of those on the formerly noisy side of the building were equal to those on the quiet side.

Nationwide Situation

Although the noisy situations are not identical, many researchers argue that the effects of hearing a train rattle past every 10 minutes do not differ greatly from the effects of hearing a Boeing 747 jetliner fly over.

“I think you’d have to conclude that [the finding] is generalizable’’ to other noisy situations, Ms. Bronzaft said of her study. “Study after study seems to support this. This problem with noise is definitely nationwide, and people are feeling its impact in quiet suburban areas as well as big cities.”

In a study that compared the reading scores of children in schools near New York City airports with those of students farther from the airports, Kendall B. Green and colleagues at the New York University Medical Center’s Institute of Environmental Medicine found an apparent link between noise and reading ability.

After controlling for socioeconomic and other variables, the researchers found that 3.6 percent more children were reading at least one year below grade level at the noisiest schools. “The percent reading below grade level increased with increasing noise level,” the researchers wrote in a paper presented at the 1982 meeting of the American Psychological Association.

A 1981 study conducted by Sheldon Cohen and colleagues at the University of Oregon uncovered another negative effect of noise on children. The researchers studied a group of 142 elementary-school children who lived under the air corridor of Los Angeles International Airport. The children were compared with a group of 120 similar children who did not live within earshot of the airport.

The study showed that the children near the airport “did not perform as well on a difficult task and were more likely to give up in discouragement,” Mr. Cohen writes in a summary of the research.

“In the noisy area, 53 percent of the children were unable to put together a nine-piece jigsaw puzzle within the four minutes allotted to the task, and 31 percent of the children who failed stopped trying even before their time was up,” Mr. Cohen writes. “In the quiet area, only 36 percent failed to finish the puzzle, and all but seven percent of those kept doggedly working at the task as long as they were allowed to.”

Disruptive Effects

Most of the school officials participating in the faa program say they have only a passing familiarity with the research on noise and learning. All, however, concurred that the sound of jet engines overhead does affect instruction.

“On those days and at those times when the flight pattern is directly over the school, it is disruptive,” said Andrew Gruber, principal of P.S. 120 in Flushing, N.Y. The noise is particularly intrusive on hot days when the windows of the school are open, he added.

“The rest of the time, there are days when we don’t hear a thing,” Mr. Gruber said. “It’s something we’ve all gotten used to. My teachers aren’t the complaining type.”

At St. Benedict’s School in Newark, N.J., administrators have been pressing local authorities for action on the noise problem for at least seven years, according to Fred B. Miller, pastor of the parish. The noise from nearby Newark Airport, he said, is “very disruptive,” although it varies with the time of day and with the type of airplane involved.

Finally, the school officials decided they could no longer wait for outside help and spent between $40,000 and $50,000 to install new windows and lower the ceilings.

The South San Francisco Unified School District lies about four miles from the San Francisco Airport. One major takeoff pattern, however, passes over the district’s high school.

“It’s pretty noisy,” said Stan Haney, director of buildings, grounds, and engineering for the system, noting that the noise varies with the weather patterns. “You can be holding a conversation and if a jet passes overhead, you just stop talking for a few minutes.” Teachers, he said, say that they may lose up to an hour of instructional time on days when traffic is heaviest.

Federal Assistance

In fiscal 1984, the faa provided about $64 million for noise-compatibility programs and planning--an increase from the previous year’s total of $48 million. In his proposed budget for fiscal 1985, the President has recommended that the act as a whole receive $912 million. Under the law, at least 8 percent must go for the noise-compatibility programs and planning.

School officials who want to check into the possibility of having their schools soundproofed should first check with the local airport authorities to see whether the airport has a noise-compatibility plan that recommends soundproofing. Lloyd Johnson, manager of the grants-in-aid division of the faa’s office of airport planning and programming, said the existence of such a plan is the basic requirement for participating in the program.

If the airport does have a plan, the school officials should work with the airport authorities and the regional faa office to determine the next step, he said. The airport, the city, or the school district--if it is considered a “unit of local government"--may apply for the funds. To date, no schools have applied directly; in most cases, the grants have been made to airports or transit authorities, Mr. Johnson said.

He emphasized that there is “a limited amount of money and a lot of competition,” since the soundproofing of schools is just one of many projects on which the money could be spent.

For school officials, the competition may grow keener. “There’s been more interest in soundproofing since some schools have had some experience with it,” Mr. Johnson said.

Measuring Noise

The faa allots money on the basis of need, and need, in this context, is simply defined: “The higher the noise level, the higher the priority,” Mr. Johnson said.

To determine the overall “noise impact” of an airport, experts create a “noise-contour measurement.” The measurement is based on a number of factors, including the traffic at the airport, the types of airplanes that use the facility, variations in levels of noise throughout the day and the year, which runways are used, and other variables that affect the overall noise situation.

The resulting “composite contour” indicates the level of noise intensity, Mr. Johnson said.

A similar process, sometimes adjusted to take the hours of schooling into account, was undertaken at participating airports to assess the problem specifically in relation to nearby schools, according to transportation officials.

Once the noisiest schools have been identified, the noise experts consider a variety of methods that will reduce the interior noise level. “The walls of a classroom, which include windows, can be looked at like a sieve,” said Mr. Muldoon. The various techniques, in essence, are used to plug the holes.

Installing new windows with special insulated frames and multiple layers of glass, as was done in East Boston, is one common method of keeping enough noise out to make the teacher’s voice audible.

Window Placement

In East Boston, the old windows reduced the outside noise level of 100 decibels by 18 decibels. At that level, Ms. Barrett said, “You still can’t hear.” The new windows, however, together with “strategically placed” ceiling tiles, reduced the level to 44 decibels. With that amount of noise, people in the school can talk comfortably, she said.

At the schools around New York City and Newark, the treatment involves replacing windows and soundproofing any penetrations of outside walls. “In some cases, we’re forced to get into ventilators because when you replace windows, you make a room more airtight,” said Mr. Muldoon of the Port Authority. “We found that the cost involves more than simply replacing the windows. You get into heating and ventilating in almost all cases.”

At St. Benedict’s, the funds will be used to install more insulated windows, to lower the ceilings on the second floor, and to put in a venting system through the walls so that each classroom will have a vent, Father Miller said. With the vents, teachers will be able to keep the windows closed.

Not all schools are able to add the facilities needed to end the need for open windows. “The point has been raised as to how effective this will be when you still have to open the windows,” said Mr. Gruber of Flushing.

A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 1984 edition of Education Week as Noise: Federal Program Helps Shield Some Schools Near Airports


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