Maybe This Time

Shortly after the 2008 elections I wrote a column suggesting that, based on the new president’s campaign promises, school districts should get their construction and maintenance projects ready to go because it was obvious that a jobs program was coming and “shovel ready” projects would go to the head of the line.

The president apparently forgot the promises he made as a candidate, but now, 39 months later, it appears that something along those lines may finally be happening. He has included public works projects including infrastructure and school rebuilding as part of his Jobs Program and, if Congress acts, they will get funded. In that expectation, school districts will certainly want to brush off their projects, refigure the costs (they’ll be significantly higher than they were three years ago) and once again be in a position to say they are “shovel ready.”

In reviewing project costs, some attention should also be paid to the projects themselves. It seems to me that there are four general areas where changes should be considered.

1. Technology.
Three years is several lifetimes in terms of technology and the ways in which it is used. What was state-of-the-art when the plans were drawn may well be obsolete today.

2. Green opportunities.
Going green probably was considered three years ago, but making sure green products are being used and energy use and costs are being minimized will not only make the projects more attractive, but pay dividends year after year.

3. Demographics. Better check the way in which student population is or is not changing. One district with which I am working had sufficient space in its elementary school three years ago and made plans to simply upgrade inefficient building systems. Today, the district must consider adding four classrooms to accommodate children that are already knocking at the door.

4. Educational improvement.
It may not be popular these days to spend money just to make the educational program better (after all, how does that affect test scores?), but any construction project offers opportunities to make changes. One simple example is to examine long corridors and consider ways in which they might be widened and converted into meeting and gathering spaces for groups of classrooms. Another example would be using construction to create smaller schools within large ones.

The proposed American Jobs Act calls for action to repair and modernize at least 35,000 schools. As a statement from the Council of Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI) put it, “Proposing to invest $25 billion in school infrastructure, the president stressed that this can put people to work right now fixing roofs and windows as well as installing science labs and high-speed Internet in up to 35,000 urban, rural and suburban schools across the country. Not only will this create thousands of jobs, and green jobs, but it will improve our classrooms to meet the 21st-century needs of our students.

“The AJA will target funds for emergency repairs and modernization, ‘greening’ schools with energy efficiency upgrades, upgrading technology, building new science and computer labs and implementing STEM programs to enable our students, today and tomorrow, to compete in the global economy.”

The legislation to get infrastructure and school rebuilding projects off the ground may never get through Congress, but if it does, school construction once again should be ready to go — and should result not just in better operating buildings, but in better educational buildings, too.

On Another Subject
As last summer came to an end, the U.S. Census Bureau issued its annual Back to School Report replete with lots of big numbers ($7.4 billion spent on back-to-school clothes; 77 million children and adults enrolled in schools) and some small ones. It was a relatively small one that caught my attention: 74 percent of children enrolled in kindergarten in 2009 were in full-day programs.

Just a few years ago many school boards rejected full-day kindergarten as costly babysitting. Now it has been implemented in districts across the nation. Full-day kindergarten has some significant implications, not the least being the need for properly sized and equipped rooms. But fortunately, it appears that the fact that early education pays big dividends later in life has sunk in. The only small nagging question in my mind is whether these full-day programs are truly kindergartens, with an emphasis on learning to listen, to play and work together, to share, etc., or whether they have become junior first grades emphasizing formal learning and preparing for tests. The wonder of a true kindergarten is watching how much and how quickly little children do learn when they are allowed to observe and absorb in a non-pressure situation.  

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."