A Final Thought

Remember Our Main Goal

Make things better for children.

Two pieces of correspondence are the genesis for this column. They were unrelated, but thinking about them reminded me, once again, that the reason I have been working in education is to make things better for children.

The first, from Victoria Bergsagel, who heads Architects of Achievement in Seattle, asked if I knew of any research on how the “use of swing space” affected the students involved.

Swing space is needed when architects are expanding and retrofitting an existing school. It’s a lot easier and faster if children can be moved out of the building for a month or a year and placed in an appropriate available space. Moving to swing space makes sense for the facilities program, but what, if anything, does it do to children, teachers and parents? Victoria cares.

I do not know of any research on the effects of using swing space (if you do, let me know), but it is pretty obvious that when you take students out of their comfort zone, some problems are created. It is quite possible, for example, that students will not do as well on tests as they might have done had they remained in their home territory. If test scores are the sole measure of educational success, that can be a problem.

The idea of moving a group of students to a new building, or a new neighborhood, is usually presented as a problem that will have to be solved. But it seems to me there is another way to approach the impending use of swing space, a way in which the move becomes an adventure, a challenge, a means to do something different, an opportunity for students (and teachers and parents) to show ingenuity, to be creative, to take leadership. And that, in turn, can create educational opportunities that perhaps cannot be measured by standardized tests, but that can be far more meaningful (and long-lasting) than just doing the same old thing in the same old space or in temporary new space.

An approach like that won’t relieve all anxiety, and it might not help students with their tests, but it could expose them positively to the educational benefits of planning, thinking, taking leadership, creating something, not just having everything done for (or to) them. It’s certainly worth a try.

The second piece of correspondence came from Donna Robinson, the president of the Council of Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI), and it was an invitation to join a committee to address the future. “This committee will examine future trends in our industry and identify areas where CEFPI should focus its attention in content development and association activity.”

For a number of reasons I felt unable to participate in the committee’s work but, in responding, I wondered exactly what “our industry” meant. I pointed out that when I joined CEFPI, it was made up largely of educators and planners and the industry in which we were most interested was education, particularly public education from kindergarten to twelfth grade.

The focus was on developing facilities to support educational improvement during a time when schools were changing from the 19th-Century model of an expert (the teacher) talking at a large group of students, towards a model where students were guided, worked on their own, needed space to undertake hands-on learning, create projects, work together and (a couple of decades later) use technology in ways that, at the time, we could not even contemplate. (When I joined CEFPI, the overhead projector was the new hot technology item.)

At more recent CEFPI meetings, architects have predominated and the focus often seems to have shifted, with more concern for how to implement technology, provide security, create a green building and stay within budget. Education and children are still a concern, but not always the main one. (I recently reviewed plans for several schools that were green, technologically advanced, secure and constructed within budget but that showed no signs of considering or meeting the educational needs of children in the present or future.)

Because of this apparent switch in emphasis, I wrote that I hope that, as a first step, CEFPI’s Innovation Committee defines the industry it is examining. From my perspective, education is still the industry we are serving. I suggested that the first question the committee should always ask is, “how will this help in the education of children?,” and the final paragraph, in answer, should sum up how that question has been answered.

If that is the focus, CEFPI and the Innovation Committee can make a tremendous contribution to the educational process (“industry”), to school design and to children. I wish them the best of luck.

This article originally appeared in the School Planning & Management July 2013 issue of Spaces4Learning.

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."