Before GIS, school district administrators spent days locating available and affordable land for a new school. They also spent weeks determining the student population in the vicinity of the property. Thanks to technology, educational facility planners can now use GIS to show district administrators aerial photographs to determine suitable land for a new school, assess information about acreage and current appraised values of the land, and retrieve student population relative to the property — in a matter of seconds.

About GIS

GIS is a collection of computer hardware, software and geographic data that allows us to capture, store, update, analyze and display all forms of geographic information. Some people refer to GIS as a“smart map,” because it involves a mapping interface. Unlike a paper map that is one-dimensional, a GIS map is multidimensional because it combines many layers of information.

GIS is still a young field, with origins dating back to Canada in the 1960s. Its original purpose was to aid in the analysis of natural resources and land assessments. GIS has also found a very effective niche in the land assessor/appraiser field. This useful mapping tool helps county auditors map individual land parcels and manage the tax base on acreage. County auditors and assessors commission aerial photographers to fly over the area, and use the photographs to model their data. Aerial photography serves as the base of which most GIS data is developed. From aerial photographs, several attributes are obvious, including roads, railroads, rivers, lakes, parcels, vegetation and sidewalks.

In addition to the use of GIS at the county level, it has been used by the U.S. Census Bureau for many years. The Census Bureau uses GIS to help in the tremendous task of counting the nation’s population every 10 years. The Census Bureau developed various levels of polygons (or areas) from which it reports statistics. Everything starts at the block level. A census block is exactly what it sounds like. A typical census block is the same as a typical city block. However, population density determines the size of the block. For instance, a rural area in North Dakota will have much larger blocks than downtown New York City. A grouping of blocks makes up a census block group, and a grouping of block groups makes up a census tract. A grouping of census tracts make up a county, groups of counties make up a state and a group of states make up the nation.

These layers are available to anybody who is able to view them on GIS. Once GIS users have the census geography layers, they can tie various demographic statistics to them for analysis. This includes statistics such as age of households, total population by age group, average value of housing, average family size and many more. For more information about what is available from the U.S. Census Bureau, visit .

Mapping Student Data

One of the most important pieces of GIS data that aids in educational facility master planning is school district information. With the use of existing and future land use data from local planning agencies, GIS can help to identify planned and approved housing developments, future plans for road expansion and future community expansion plans that will impact future enrollments. This data, coupled with student data by address, can be an extremely powerful tool when planning for future enrollments.

With the help of either census or county road information, each student in the school district can be accurately mapped with GIS. A current student database is taken from the district’s student information system, and students are mapped in GIS by a process called geo-coding. The address of each individual student is matched with addresses in the county or census road file. This results in a point on the map for each student. Once students are in GIS format, they can be analyzed and displayed in several ways. For example, each student in the district can be mapped by home address, grade level, ethnicity, socio-economic level (reduced-price or free lunch) and education classification (regular-ed or special-ed). Multiple layers of information like this give district administrators the tools they need to determine future enrollmentin middle and high schools, plan for special-education services and ensure diversity districtwide.

Student data also helps district administrators decide which schools to discontinue, renovate or build new. Overlaying student information on a map with roads, rivers, attendance boundaries and school sites accelerates this decision-making process. Students are mapped out, and densities in relation to school sites can immediately be seen. A GIS user can draw a box around any area and count the number of students within the selection. Once this is done, he can provide a breakdown of grade levels, schools attending, ethnicity, lunch code or any other attribute that is tracked in the student information. The students can even be aged a few years to determine how they will impact the facilities once they are built.

Student attendance boundaries are also converted from hard-copy maps into GIS format. This helps determine how home schools are serving their neighboring populations. Various analyses are performed with attendance boundaries, such as the number of students who live in the attendance boundary vs. students who attend the home school, as well as the number of students who live outside the attendance boundary and attend within it. The final goal is to see if attendance boundaries are working or need to be changed.

Putting Data Together for Analysis

The key to making GIS a useful tool when developing a long-range facility master plan is to have all levels of data available for analysis. Aerial photography is extremely helpful when the school site selection process is underway. For example, the use of current aerial photography can assist when calculating available acreage on existing school sites (green space), identifying nearby public parks and recreation property for the possibility of land sharing/swapping and calculating adjacent property to determine the impact of expanding a school site. With the aerial photos as a background, planners can begin to add more data to the map to analyze relationships. For instance, overlaying parcels on top of aerial photography enables planners to see property lines for all land. In addition to this, parcel data often includes information such as property owner, address, appraised value, acreage and year-built information. This can be extremely helpful when trying to gauge the cost impact of acquiring adjacent property or ensuring that a building expansion plan isn’t encroaching on neighboring property.

Adding other data that various governmental organizations use also can be an eye-opener. For example, adding a wetland layer or soil layer can immediately discount plans for expansion on a potential site. The opportunities to use these types of data are endless.

GIS Allows for Future Thinking

GIS has proven to be an extremely effective and efficient tool for educational facility planners. My colleagues and I have experienced several instances where GIS has allowed us to think well into the future, thereby helping district administrators plan the smartest and safest environments for school children.

Dayton, Ohio: GIS crime mapping enhanced awareness of high-crime areas throughout the district and helped to ensure the safety and security of the children when planning.

Beaufort, S. C.: GIS helped determine how many students would eventually live in subdivisions that are not yet developed. First, students in each subdivision were tallied, showing the number of students per household. This data helped administrators predict the number of future students in housing. Scottsdale, Ariz.: Again, GIShelped to determine the number of future students in future housing. District administrators were also able to determine where new schools should be built based on student densities and grade configurations.

Jacksonville, Fla.: The GIS-projected enrollment map looked similar to a weather radar map on the evening news. Historical enrollment figures were gathered by building and generating a map through 2014. When put in video form, administrators watched the transition unfold year to year.

GIS Data Continues to Work When Facility Plans are Complete

Once a district’s educational facility plan is finished, GIS software is installed and district personnel are trained to analyze their own data. The goal is to empower school districts with the tools they need to make smart, practical decisions for their students on an ongoing basis.