According to the Census Bureau, more than one in four people in the United States, age three and older, were enrolled in school in 2000. Total public and private elementary and secondary school enrollment has topped 54 million, plus an additional 5.9 million full-time-equivalent teachers, administrators and staff. Contrary to popular belief, growth in enrollment has not stopped. Rising immigration and the baby boom echo is expected to boost K-12 enrollment another five percent by the year 2013.

Building programs are going on all across the country making sure these students have a seat in class. More than $20 billion worth of construction was completed in 2003, with four out of every five dollars going toward new or additional space. Approximately 1,000 new schools are built each year to fill this growing need. When looking at a number of these recently constructed schools, four common themes become apparent. The school must be energy efficient; the school must be safe and secure; the school must be a place for the community; and the space must be flexible.


Rising utility bills were most likely the driver when it came to the decision to build energy-efficient buildings. Bottom line — the per pupil expenditures for energy rose by 20 percent between FY’00 and FY’01. A number of recent studies also gave credence to the fact that between 20 and 40 percent of the monies spent on energy could be saved if a district invested in an energy-efficient building. This translated into enough money to pay the salaries of 30,000 teachers or to purchase 40 million textbooks each year. In addition to becoming more energy efficient, schools were also becoming hi-performance/green buildings, incorporating nature’s“free” services like wind, sun and thermal energy, greenhouse properties and daylighting. To achieve energy savings and make their new buildings into hi-performance schools, elements like the use of automated building systems, natural daylighting, skylights, light shelves and occupancy sensors were the norm.


Improving security was at the top of the list in all of the new schools built. Making the buildings more secure was achieved by incorporating security technologies, in addition to the emphasis being placed on the school site, building layout and design. Access control technologies ranged from door hardware to student ID systems to CCTV and alarms. From a design standpoint, hallways were wider for stress-free passing, sightlines were improved to give better visual control, windows were provided for natural surveillance and main entrances were located adjacent to the main office. Some districts opted for small schools to provide the feeling of belonging and personalization. Others opted to create a small school feeling in a big school building. Building codes were changed and new materials developed to better handle natural disasters like earthquakes, floods and wind damage.


Funding schools is a near impossibility without community buy-in. The last time most community members stepped into a school was the day they graduated. Districts have learned that offering programs and providing community space goes a long way in building the relationship necessary to garner community support. A majority of schools being built were designed with community use in mind. Programs ranged from joint operating agreements with the public library, to community use of the media center and computer labs; use of gymnasiums and weight rooms for sports and exercise; local theater groups using the performing arts centers or school auditorium; community meetings in the multipurpose room or school commons; or senior citizen lunches in the cafeteria. From a design perspective, planning for community use meant creating public space that could be compartmentalized to limit access and ensure student safety.

Flexible Spaces

New schools are being designed with the ability to change and with room to grow. Flexibility and adaptability were key elements in most new school designs. The good designs accommodated multiple teaching styles, including the trend toward team teaching, collaborative learning and a“hands on” curriculum. The use of “neighborhoods” and “pods” were commonplace, each with classroom space as well as space for collaboration and faculty interaction. The increased use of movable wall panels provided a quick and easy reconfiguration of space, supporting small group and large group instruction. As teaching styles change, technology evolves, learning becomes more hands on and our schools become a living laboratory, it seems flexibility is key to success.