What's New in Locker Rooms?

Think of a school’s team sports equipment and you think of shin guards, ball gloves, basketballs, hockey sticks, tennis racquets, golf clubs, cleats -- and that’s just for the girls.

The faces of middle and high school athletes have changed and, these days, more of them wear lipstick.

Schools built before the 1970s had the requisite locker rooms for the mandated physical education classes for students of both sexes. While boys had lockers and the proverbial “gang” shower room, girls were left with smaller facilities, generally consisting of cubicle showers to maintain modesty and privacy, a small dressing area and a few lockers.

Equipment-intensive sports were almost exclusively in the male domain, with only a very small percentage of females engaged in any organized team sports. With such limited participation, the space devoted to locker room facilities for girls’ athletics was either paltry or nonexistent.

However, all of that began to change with the 1972 passage of Title IX, which was designed to eliminate educational discrimination against women, including in the area of school athletics. The growth of girls’ participation in athletics rapidly outstripped the locker room facilities available to them. Now, many schools are finding themselves playing catch-up with the times. Not only do the girls require the same athletic opportunities as their male counterparts, they need the equivalent locker space and shower room facilities to go with them.

Renovations Required

According to Dr. Frank Locker, a principal with Portland, Maine-based PDT Architects, school athletics require more locker room space than physical education because of the need for students to store their personal sports equipment. Accordingly, increased participation by girls in school athletics precipitated the demand for additional locker room facilities for them.

One such project was the expansion and alteration of the Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School in South Paris, Maine. Locker says one of the problems encountered when trying to renovate existing space in many older buildings is that locker rooms generally are “boxed in by being adjacent to the gymnasium and, often, other ‘difficult to move’ functions, such as the boiler room or the school kitchen.” Locker indicates that straight renovation, quite often, isn’t an option, as was the case with Oxford Hills. Most of the time, additional space has to be allotted.

Locker says the school’s existing gymnasium was turned into a media center, and a new, larger gymnasium, fitness center, and dance/aerobics/ multi-purpose/wrestling room, along with new physical education locker room facilities, were constructed. The existing locker rooms were expanded by “stealing existing adjacent spaces to the greatest extent possible,” he explains, creating athletics locker rooms and coaches’ office space. This expanded Oxford Hills’ locker room functions to about three times their original size.

Another instance where renovation was an option was at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School in East Cambridge, Mass. Laura Wernick, vice president and a principal of Cambridge-based HMFH Architects, Inc., says the school was able to renovate and replace all of its locker rooms and showers within the existing space because there was extra, unused locker space that was reapportioned.

The renovation allowed for more equitable facilities for both sexes; however, privacy for the girls continued to be an issue, so shower facilities for girls were constructed as cubicles, while boys have gang shower rooms. Four shower rooms serve six locker rooms -- the boys’ and girls’ physical education and team locker rooms each share one shower facility apiece, while the school’s pool has one shower room each for males and females.

In that case, Wernick notes, complete equity still isn’t achieved because, overall, the males’ shower rooms have a total of five more shower heads than those of the females. But, she adds, they are getting closer to parity.

At another high school, the renovation of locker room facilities was accomplished by taking space from an underutilized area of the school, industrial arts, Locker says. Since, typically, work and auto shops tend to be located in the same areas as gymnasiums and use of industrial arts space had contracted, the space could be turned into an additional area for locker rooms.

Girls Get in the Game

Historically, boys were given needed space for sports equipment, whereas “few, if any (spaces) were set aside for girls,” says Wernick. Now, many new locker rooms are being designed with fewer differences for males and females, so that, should the need arise, they can be used interchangeably. Yet, she adds, until there are girls’ football teams, boys will need more locker space.

If playing fields are any indicator, Locker says, girls definitely are getting involved in team athletics. “Schools now are asking for about twice as many play fields as they might have 10 years ago. Additionally, girls’ teams, stimulated by Title IX, but also by changing values, demand more play fields,” he notes.

Current needs call for separate physical education and athletic locker rooms, with larger lockers for athletics. Having the ability to close off athletic locker rooms during non-peak hours is a plus, because it cuts down on possible vandalism. Locker also says that locker rooms should be designed to allow students to flow through without creating bottlenecks during periods of peak demand.

Schools also should plan for the use of locker rooms, both boys’ and girls’, for multiple types of team sports. “Banks of lockers in bays will allow different bays to be used by different teams,” Locker says.

Whatever schools may do to achieve facilities equity for their students, the future effects of those decisions have to be taken into account, as well.

“Title IX may have been written for equal funding of sports, but in daily practice, equal facilities for both sexes is as important an issue,” Locker remarks. “If the locker rooms are sized to allow equal demand, then the facilities will ‘facilitate’ growth of girls’ sports. If locker rooms are sized at current ratios, they may unwittingly restrict future growth of girls’ sports.”

Robbin M. Rittner-Heir is a Dayton-based freelance writer with experience in education issues.