Editor's Notebook -- It's Time to Redo

One of my biggest pet peeves is needing to redo things. With so little available time, my goal is always to look at the facts, make the decisions, do the job once and move on to the next task at hand. The last thing I want to do is reopen a job that I thought was finished. I can just imagine how frustrating it must be for school officials who look at their program and projected enrollment, plan their facilities to meet those needs and then are thrown a curve ball that makes all of their plans obsolete.

When it comes to calculating capacity, even the best-laid plans go awry. On the front end of any construction project, a lot of time and effort is put into discussing the determinants of capacity, analyzing everything from programs, to classroom function, to size requirements mandated by state, district or building code. Unfortunately, the job doesn’t end there. In the three years it takes to build a school, new legislation has passed, standards and guidelines have been updated and program delivery has significantly changed, or something new has been invented — meaning its time to recalculate capacity and explain to the taxpaying public why a school that once held 700 students can now only accommodate 500.

Recent reforms and initiatives, ranging from technology to all day kindergarten, to class-size reduction have all had a dramatic effect on building capacity. No one could have imagined that they would spread like wildfire — some of them at a seemingly uncontrollable rate of speed. Look at technology in the classroom. In a 10-year period, we went from wanting a few computers in a school to wanting a computer for every student and teacher. In addition to the obvious, the side effects of increased technology in the classroom included: the need for more power; increased HVAC cooling needs; larger desktops and workspaces; and the addition of technology clusters and labs — all translating into the need for more space and decreased capacity. Technology expenditures may have been planned to cover initial purchase costs, but not the ongoing technical support, maintenance or additional space needed to make the program fly.

Another program with dramatic implications is the move toward full-day kindergarten. With the increased availability of research on brain development and early learning, legislators and other policymakers are rethinking kindergarten — many pushing for mandatory attendance at a full-day program. More than three million kids are enrolled annually in public kindergarten programs. Nearly two million are already enrolled in full-day programs. But, what would happen if states continue down the path of making full-day kindergarten mandatory? All of a sudden we needed to accommodate those students in a full-day program. Where will districts find the space?

Class-size reduction, a popular reform idea especially for the lower grades, presents similar challenges. The goal of class size reduction is to have no more than 20 students per class in the lower grades, providing students with more individualized attention and a better chance of academic success. The unwanted side effects of this initiative are an increasingly critical shortage of qualified teachers and of classroom space. The debate over the efficiency and effectiveness of reducing class sizes still rages, but in the meantime, many policymakers are still pouring their efforts into requiring smaller class size.

We can all see how the big things (technology, full-day kindergarten, class-size reduction) affect building capacity. Most would agree that we need to make changes to our capacity formula to accommodate these reforms. What is harder to calculate (and to sell to the public) is the effect that changing teaching and learning styles have on space. Not all that long ago students sat at small desks lined up in a row; the band practiced on the stage before or after school; the art teacher pushed a cart from classroom to classroom; and a computer or VCR was signed out of the library for one period at a time. Programs and parent expectations have changed. Learning has become active, experiential and cooperative with students working individually and in teams. This requires space. Unfortunately, many district and state standards, guidelines, allowable square footages and funding formulas are still based on past history — defining capacity for what was, not for what is. Like it or not, it is time to redo!