A Final Thought

Schools Are Still Changing

I was fortunate last month to have a chance to visit with Ruth Weintraub, a key employee of Educational Facilities Laboratories (EFL). She was responsible for writing and editing many of EFL’s books, pamphlets and planning guides.

What, you’ve never heard of Educational Facilities Laboratories? If you are younger than 50, that’s entirely possible, even though you may have been involved with designing or using educational facilities most of your life.

For those who do not know, EFL pioneered and supported most of the innovations in school facilities and design that are currently in place, still being debated or finally being implemented today. Not everything EFL suggested worked. Open Schools, EFL’s most famous idea, were tried and did not always work (usually because the staff had not been properly trained in how to use them), but recently, they have been coming back and are being discussed because they provide excellent space for today’s technology-driven educational programs.

But that’s getting ahead of the story, a story in which I played a small role. I met Dr. Harold Gores, EFL’s founder and president, when he was superintendent of schools in Newton, Mass. I had gone to see him because I was editing School Management magazine, and we had heard that he was doing some very innovative things in Newton, including team teaching, differentiated staffing and more.

On Gores’ desk that day was a letter from the Ford Foundation asking him to head a new foundation called Educational Facilities Laboratories (EFL). The challenge was to stimulate and encourage changes in school programs and design. EFL would provide funds to encourage architects and others to experiment, try different ideas and would then publish books and pamphlets presenting the best solutions.

That’s where my small role came in. Because writing, editing and publishing took time, Gores asked us to become the vehicle for quickly getting ideas out for discussion. We even started a special section, “Experiments in Education,” that reported some of the innovations that were beginning to take place.

What were some of the ideas that EFL sponsored? Here are a few that may seem obvious to planners now, but were significant challenges and/or advances 40 and 50 years ago.

Air conditioning — at the time, few school districts outside the Deep South even considered using air conditioning. After all, schools are closed in the summer, so who needs it? Air conditioning is assumed in any educational building designed today, no matter where it is located. EFL made that happen.

Carpeting as a means to make schools quieter and warmer was an EFL idea. There were even (and may still be) carpeted school cafeterias, though custodians did not always like the idea.

Different Classroom arrangement — Why should all rooms be the same size and be lined up along single or double-loaded corridors? EFL encouraged architects to experiment with different shapes and different arrangements of classrooms that more closely supported the educational program. (Unfortunately we still see schools being built with classroom after classroom lined up along long corridors.)

Open space, open schools, open classrooms were all attempts to “get the building out of the way of the educational program.” A key problem was finding a way to create divisible space using sliding doors or other kinds of sound barriers. One experiment involved a lead curtain that could be lowered or raised. The curtain weighed hundreds of pounds and walking under it was daunting. Fortunately, that idea was discarded and better, more manageable dividers were created including movable furniture that could cut sight-lines and reduce noise and distractions.

EFL was responsible for supporting the School Construction System Development (SCSD), a project that brought manufacturers together to produce components like windows, air conditioning units, flooring, furniture, chalkboards and more that could be put together in a variety of ways by different architects, but all worked and fit together on a single grid. School districts saved millions of dollars by using these compatible pieces.

The use of audio-visual products (the technology of the day), specialized facilities for early childhood, and construction methodology that got buildings up faster at a lower price were other ideas that EFL started, encouraged and promoted.

EFL was successful in the 1960s and ‘70s because schools and school programs were rapidly changing to meet the new needs of the Post-War era. Schools are changing rapidly now, too, and there is a need for redesign to meet new challenges. There are a few architects, planners and school administrators out there that are working to provide new kinds of flexible space. What we need now, is a non-governmental foundation to support the kind of exploration EFL funded so many years ago.

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."