Final Thought - Imminent Challenges

Architect Jim Biehle asked,“What are the biggest issues defining how schools will function during the next 10 to 20 years, and what are the implications for facilities?”

A tough question. Some people have a very narrow view of education — teach reading, writing, arithmetic and pass the tests. Facilities for that type of education might emulate the schools of 1910 — rows of fixed seats and desks and a platform for the teacher.

On the other hand, if education can break out of the“test, test, test” mentality, here are two issues that I think will, or should, effect school facilities through the next two decades.

High School Size

Perhaps the small schools movement is just the latest fad. But, fad or not, the issue of the proper size of high schools needs to be explored in the context of the purpose of schools and what size best allows them to do their job.

There are things large schools can do that small ones may not be able to accomplish within reasonable cost. On the other hand, in the book “Breaking Ranks,” the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) calls for breaking high schools into smaller units, “with no more than 600 students” in order to “banish anonymity” and ensure that no student gets lost or falls through the cracks. If educating every student is the purpose of high school, the NASSP suggests that small schools provide the best opportunity.

If one believes in the advantages of small schools, a challenge during the next decade is going to be to find ways to create smaller learning units (whether one calls them separate schools or something else) economically and without losing some of the opportunities that large schools can provide.

That may mean changing the role of teachers and the way they reach students, changing administrative structures so they are less expensive and using technology to bring to small units some of the opportunities (Advanced Placement classes, teaching multiple languages, etc.) that are now considered possible only in large schools.

Schools as the Center of Communities

The cost of building schools is always a major issue, and as our nation’s population ages, it is going to become more so. School districts can create support for needed facilities if they develop school buildings that serve children and also meet other community needs.

I recently had the opportunity to prepare specifications for an elementary school that a district conceived as a community center. In discussions with people in the community, we came up with the following ideas.

• The school health office was to be a neighborhood drop-in health center.

• A senior center with access to the cafeteria, gym and library.

• The police needed a sub-station. Given the space, they volunteered to provide weight-training equipment and share it with the school and the community.

• The library and gym have street entrances for after-school use.

• The cafeteria serves four times daily (breakfast, lunch, snack and supper) for students and seniors.

• Three classrooms were designated for adults, and pre-K and daycare centers were included.

Some of the non-school spaces were to be paid for by the users; some, including the daycare center, would be rented to private providers.

In Harrisburg, PA, I visited a high school that saves on expenses by using community facilities that already exist.

A local YMCA is used for physical education and interscholastic sports. Girls, if they prefer, can use a Curves studio around the corner. The school has bought time in each. A civic auditorium is both the practice and performance venue. A local hospital provides health services. Many students get career training working in local businesses.

This school has a cafeteria but could have provided vouchers for students to eat in local restaurants. An ad agency could (I do not know if one does) provide space for teaching art. In this case, the school became a part of the community by using community assets to supplement its own. It saved money and it became a part of the community, not a separate element plunked down in the middle of the city.

High school size and building facilities for community-based schools would be two of my choices for facilities challenges facing education over the next decade. What are yours?

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."