Keys for Successful District Master Planning

At a recent retirement gathering for a school district superintendent, stories, recollections and anecdotes were repeated about the honoree’s 35 incredible years in education. After all the wonderful accolades were given, the retiring superintendent made his way to the front of the room, thanked those who had gathered and added a few more thoughts and quips. As he drew to a close, he notably ended his speech with the statement that after all is said and done “it’s all about kids.” As educators, facility managers and architects charged with designing and constructing the nation’s schools, every decision should be examined in that light.

Qualities of Good Assessments
A high-quality assessment of school facilities is an essential step in focusing on “the kids.” The condition of school facilities has proven to be an extremely important factor in school learning, perhaps as important as the recruitment and retention of motivated teachers. Having great school facilities can be one of the most critical elements in a district’s cache.

Master planning begins with creating appropriate standards for world-class facilities. A comprehensive condition and educational suitability assessment will bring focus to district facilities that fail to meet these standards. The condition of a single facility is important, but the development of a master plan will drive a district in preparing for the next generation of teachers and learners.

After all, it is “all about the kids,” and creating a more responsive environment is the best place to start. Communities, which typically supply the majority of the funding for master planning and facilities improvements, are more likely to support improvements if they are clearly defined with “real” costs that reflect the total improvements needed, through a well thought out, stakeholder driven process.

Process Leads to Buy-In

Process is as important as the assessment itself. Without buy-in from students, parents, faculty — in short, every stakeholder — the assessment is of little use and becomes yet another study that is never implemented.

Comprehensive district-wide master planning must start with a major focus on listening. In one example, the Fresno Unified School District began with community meetings at the eight high schools, a board of education workshop and a two-day visioning session with the district academic staff and the district facilities department. Critical facility issues, as became apparent, were integral to the programs in the district’s schools. The integration of the educational delivery and the facility became as important to the community as the condition of the facility. After defining the “School Facility Standards,” every school site was inspected. The question, “Does the building support and enhance the delivery of the educational program?" was asked. The results were graphically represented and used in partnership with the physical condition report. The report was used to make decisions on improvements, consolidations and potential closures.

That process takes time and patience from stakeholders. It also is forward thinking — envisioning what could be rather that what was. The inclusive nature of the process at Fresno — every stakeholder’s input was sought — increased the viability and accuracy of the final assessment. Everyone was heard; everyone’s point of view was considered.

Teaching practices and pedagogy have remained relatively stagnant for more than 100 years. Facilities continue to reflect a lecture-driven style of curriculum delivery. The 21st-century school facility has been talked about, debated and defined by numerous professionals in the field. As architects, owners and agencies, we use the concepts of flexibility and technology integration as a way of reflecting the change in our designs to meet the needs of the 21st-century learner. Today, children entering our schools know how to use a computer and a keyboard; most surf the Internet with ease. Tomorrow’s students will have yet other technology at their fingertips. Flexibility in classroom design is paramount, and we must create buildings that support this learning need. Flexibility by creating the ability to change the size of a room, or the shape of the room; the technology interface in a room or with an on- or off-campus discussion; adjacencies to other size student gathering spaces for various sizes of continued student discussions; and the ability of the student to have down time near the classroom for before and after class discussions are all part of today’s students’ needs.

Today’s generation of students needs more than merely the presence of technology in the school. They work and learn in ways that are considerably different than in previous generations. They require spaces and delivery systems that promote the way they learn and work: collaboration, discussion, exploration, investigation, experimentation. Too often modernization gives little credence to changing the design of a facility to support these new functions. While computers are important elements of the 21st-century classroom, they do not address the larger issue of educational flexibility of a facility.
These three key issues are crucial to the master planning effort, an effort that begins with an assessment. Excellent school facilities do not cost more to construct than poor facilities; they differ in the quality of planning and assessment that have been undertaken by administrators, architects, parents and faculty.

Assessing school districts successfully means blending a vision for student education and educational facilities. The connection between these two — education and facility — is axiomatic. Likewise, the assessment must be comprehensive and investigate the entire educational process from pre-kindergarten to high school.

Process is as important as product where the master plan is concerned. If the process has not been inclusive, transparent and understandable, the product — the comprehensive master plan — is flawed and will not gain public acceptance.

Well-crafted master plans ask the question, “What should our educational process look like in the future?” Flexibility of facilities from the campus level to the classroom level is essential; master planning based upon an accurate and visionary assessment can ensure that flexibility.

America’s school facilities are two steps behind as far as integrating education and facilities. Each district — administrators, teachers, parents and architects — must ask: Do our district’s facilities support and enhance the effective delivery of the educational program, and will they be ready for the next generation of teachers and students? How each district undertakes their master planning will positively affect facilities and spaces, making them “all about the kids.”

Tim Haley, director of Education at Stafford King Wiese Architects, Sacramento, Calif., can be reached at