Making a Problem and Opportunity

An interesting problem was posed to me recently. A district’s high school is filled to capacity. Looking at classes that will be entering over the next five years, it is apparent that enrollment is going to increase. But classes in the lower grades are small. Presumably, five years from now, enrollment will drop back to current levels or lower.

The district would rather not construct new space to meet its needs over the next five years. So the question is, what can be done to relieve high school crowding so that the district can get by without construction?

Without knowing the building, the program, the faculty, or the community, it’s a little difficult to come up with answers, but some tried and true options are obvious. A review of present use of space might show small classes scheduled in large rooms. Room assignments might be adjusted to eke out a few more teaching stations.

The school has an eight-period day. How about an early“zero” period and/or a ninth period for students and faculty willing to stretch or change their day? Or, double sessions might be implemented, with half the students and faculty reporting in the morning, others arriving during the afternoon.

But these are old answers to an old question. It seems to me that this school — and any others with similar problems today — would do better to use the situation as an opportunity to introduce and explore new ideas that might enhance the educational program, rather than falling back on stop-gap approaches from the past.

Introducing New Ideas

One might start with Advanced Placement classes. Do they need to meet in a classroom or lab five days a week? Suppose AP classes met only two or three days a week — or even once — and used time during the week to work on their own doing research or writing. That would certainly open up some classroom space. It might also improve student learning and prepare students for their college experience.

How about creating a“senior center,” a place where each senior who has earned the right is provided with a desk and computer, perhaps in the library. Students would be expected to work as they will the next year in college — scheduling classes two or three times a week then working at their stations, probably with help from faculty tutors.

The key would be a change in the relationship between faculty and students. Faculty would direct students, coaching them, teaching them how to learn, helping them to research and write, rather than meeting with them daily to impart knowledge. Good teachers do that now, but this would suggest an organized approach, one that, in turn, could open up classrooms for other uses. It’s an approach highly recommended in “Breaking Ranks,” the important booklet published by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Another space saver would be to allow seniors who have completed their requirements to attend college classes. The students would still be in high school, would be eligible to participate on teams, in plays, student government, and the like, and they probably would take some high school courses, but they would also spend a good deal of their time off-campus, opening classroom and lab space for others.

Changing the way classes are scheduled, moving to full or partial block scheduling, or a six-day rotation, for example, might also free up some space. Scheduling groups of students together so that rooms are used more efficiently could help. Some schools already do this with ninth graders.

Three Caveats

Of course, there are three important caveats to all of this: First, any and all changes would have to fit the particular building and program. Good ideas in the wrong setting won’t work.

Second, any changes of the kind suggested would need the support (and retooling) of teachers. If teachers do not buy into the idea — if they do not know, for example, how to act as coaches — then that is not going to work.

Third, it’s just possible that the space available in the school is too limited and that construction is necessary. That would be particularly true if the current student body is already overwhelming the cafeteria, lockers and locker rooms, restroom facilities, library, gymnasium, art and music space, and labs of various types. It takes more than classroom space to make a school run properly. Sometimes, like it or not, adding space is a necessity.

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."