Top Ten: Facility Design and Planning Solutions

As schools build and renovate facilities at a record pace, planners are incorporating features that recognize the evolving needs of the 21st-century student.

School facilities should not be warehouses where students are deposited for several hours a day. Unfortunately, many of the nation's classrooms were designed and built without much consideration of the critical activities that would be taking place within those walls.

In recent years, more educators - and the politicians and voters that ultimately control the purse strings - have been convinced that school design should not be bland or neutral, but should complement and enhance student learning.

That philosophy manifests itself many ways in today's school designs. Here are 10 examples of how the way a school is built can help the way a student learns:

Alternative School Sites: In areas where space is a premium, school districts are establishing classrooms in unlikely settings - old factories and storefronts, shopping malls and former churches.

In some cases, the lack of space is not the motivating factor. School districts are taking advantage of unconventional facilities to give students experiences beyond those found in traditional classrooms.

The Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy is a charter high school situated on the 400-acre grounds of the Museum of Northern Arizona. The museum offers students an apprentice program to teach them how the museum operates.

The Henry Ford Academy, a charter high school that opened in 1997, is situated at the Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Mich.

"One of the strongest notions behind the creation of the Academy is to demonstrate that students can receive a high-quality education outside of a traditional classroom in a traditional school building," says the school's web site. "Not only do students report for class in the museum and village, but they have access to the millions of artifacts from American History that the museum staff has collected during its nearly 70-year history."

Ecologically Friendly: Many new school designs incorporate features that conserve energy and other resources while also enhancing a student's learning opportunities.

To be better stewards of the environment and to teach students about conserving resources, schools are using principles of sustainable design as they build or renovate facilities.

The principles call for designs that save energy and water, reduce maintenance costs, encourage recycling and enhance occupants' health. Designs include more windows and skylights in schools. Daylight is cheaper than artificial light, and studies show that students exposed to increased amounts of daylight perform better. More energy-efficient windows allow schools to have more windows without letting heat loss jeopardize energy savings. Dimmers and other lighting controls allow schools to use light more efficiently.

Other environmentally friendly design elements used in schools are geothermal energy and solar heating.

Flexible Spaces: As educators incorporate different teaching styles and tools into instruction, a classroom must be more than a rectangular box with rigid rows of desks facing the front.

Students frequently need to work in small groups and conduct hands-on exercises, as well as gather for larger lectures. Classrooms require space for computers and other technology. Other curricular changes may occur in the future that place different demands on classroom arrangements.

So it is critical for new and renovated educational facilities to have the flexibility to enhance student learning and adapt to unforeseen changes.

Schools "should provide flexible space for conducting large- and small-group instruction, for displaying and storing alternative educational and assessment materials, and for teaching laboratory sciences and other activity-type classes," says the Department of Education's "Schools as Centers of Community: A Citizens Guide for Planning and Design."

"Whenever possible, they should allow specialized facilities such as kitchens, offices and maintenance areas, to do double duty by serving educational as well as operational functions," the guide says. "Through creative approaches, they can even provide opportunities for using the building and grounds as `three dimensional textbooks' that manifest such educational content as mathematics, geometry, art, history and the sciences."

Outdoor Spaces: Beyond the structures that schools and universities build to accommodate students, education also can take place in the outdoor spaces surrounding a school.

"Children learn by doing; by touching a tree, by observing animal tracks, by seeing a bird in flight," says the Connecticut School Habitat Network, which was formed in 1998 to encourage the creation of outdoor classrooms. "Using schoolyard property to create `outdoor classrooms' gets children excited about learning in a way that few other approaches can, while cutting costs for field trips."

Much of the education that occurs in an outdoor setting is hands-on learning, which sticks with students better and longer than passive lectures.

In many cases, schools partner with natural resource agencies or wildlife organizations to help students find learning opportunities outdoors. Students are studying plants, vegetation and insects outside the schools for science classes, using the surroundings as inspiration for art classes, or finding examples in nature that illustrate mathematical principles.

Schools as Communities: Beyond their roles as spaces for housing students, schools should be environments in which students and staff feel pride, where they are at home and comfortable, where the surroundings inspire learning.

"If a school building is forbidding or confusing, it does not encourage students to participate," says Vojo Narancic, an architect with Legat Architects, Waukegan, Ill. "You simply cannot separate the aesthetic from the function because, in a broader sense, aesthetic is a component of function."

As the baby boom filled schools beyond capacity, districts often responded with quickly constructed additions that resulted in cramped hallways, traffic bottlenecks and few places for students to gather.

In designing renovations for Deerfield and Highland Park high schools in suburban Chicago, Narancic focused on improving the aesthetics and creating a sense of community. The changes included entryways that are expressions of school pride, and wider hallways that eased congestion and gave students more opportunities to socialize.

Smaller Schools: Students who attend smaller schools are less likely to get lost in the shuffle. But school districts often opt to build larger facilities because they are less expensive to operate than collections of smaller schools.

Planners have tried to resolve that inherent conflict by creating schools-within-schools, also called houses, neighborhoods or clusters.

The smaller schools-within-schools could be composed of students of the same grade level, or they could be composed of students studying the same subject area. The houses operate with some degree of independence from the school as a whole. All the houses share centralized resources, such as gymnasiums, cafeterias and media centers.

The Small Schools Workshop, based in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, cites several ways a smaller school environment can benefit students.

It points to research that indicates that smaller schools can raise student achievement, especially for minority and low-income students; improve a school's climate; reduce violence and vandalism; improve attendance and graduation rates; increase a student's sense of belonging, boost teachers' job satisfaction, increase parent and community involvement, and operate more efficiently than larger schools.

The Department of Education says that research indicates that smaller learning environments are safer and tend to boost student achievement. Students feel more nurtured and teachers feel that they have more opportunity to get to know their students.

In October, the department awarded $42.3 million in grants through its Smaller Learning Communities Program. The grants will help high schools with 1,000 or more students to plan, develop and carry out strategies that personalize the learning environment for students.

"In smaller high schools, students can get to know their classmates and teachers better," says Education Secretary Richard Riley. "It's these personal connections that can be so important to success in school. Size matters. We know that students thrive in smaller school settings."

A total of 354 schools, serving more than 400,000 high school students, will benefit during the first year of this program.

Security: The importance of creating a safe environment for learning has been heightened in recent years because of the numerous violent episodes on school campuses across the nation.

"School designs should incorporate the kinds of physical features that enhance safety," says the Department of Education's Schools as Centers of Community: A Citizens' Guide for Planning and Design. "They should eliminate the kinds of features that add to the potential for violence and crime."

School districts want facilities that offer protection from potential dangers, yet still provide an atmosphere that is conducive to learning. Many designs are incorporating elements that bolster security.

Areas that the community at large will use frequently - auditoriums, gymnasiums, media centers - are placed in such a way that the rest of the school facility can be cordoned off and kept secure.

Administrative offices are situated so that officials have clear sight lines to see parking lots and approaching visitors. Corridors are designed without blind spots so that staff members can observe students at all times. Windows and landscaping are put in places that maximize privacy and provide students and staff with the ability to see a troublesome situation developing.

Technology: Most schools were built before the personal computer became commonplace and were not designed to accommodate these machines that have become vital to 21st-century education.

New school designs include not only computer labs, but also classrooms and other educational spaces with the capacity to accommodate computers and other multimedia technology, and to connect those computers to a schoolwide and districtwide network as well as the Internet. That means larger classrooms to accommodate computers, more electrical power to support the equipment, and better climate control to ensure the technology runs efficiently.

As technology becomes more critical to education, students will need computers and Internet access to be available more frequently from more locations. Some schools and universities are designing facilities that allow students to plug laptops into the Internet from just about anywhere on campus. Other schools have overcome the obstacles of wiring entire buildings or campuses by using wireless technology systems.

Welcoming the Greater Community Historically, schools have been focal points of a neighborhood. "A century ago our nation was, to a great extent, composed of small farming communities in which the schoolhouse was one of the most important - if not the only - public edifice," says a report from the Pew Partnership for Civic Change, "Why Lock the Doors at Three O'Clock?"

The school building's role in the community began to diminish as society changed. "School buildings in this country by and large are substantially underutilized," says John B. Lyons of the U.S. Department of Education.

Most communities in the United States use their school buildings and grounds at a rate equal to about 30 percent of the available daylight hours, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

But in recent years, educators and school planners have pushed for a revived partnership between schools and communities.

Schools are opening their gymnasiums, auditoriums, libraries, cafeterias and commons spaces for community events. Schools also have become hosts to health clinics, child-care centers and other social-service programs.

Proponents say expanding use of school facilities offers several advantages: taxpayers are more likely to support funding for a new facility when it has a wider benefit to the community; there is greater support for the district because more people know what is going on in the schools; and there is a potential for additional revenue streams to the district from programs offered to the community.

The Department of Education lists five basic categories of activities that many schools can accommodate after hours: cultural and social, such as community theaters; youth activities, including day care; resource use and information dissemination, such as community libraries; health, leisure and recreation, such as fitness clubs; and adult learning.

The trend toward community use has led to design changes in newly built schools. Areas intended for community use are situated in a school so that the public can get to them conveniently while allowing the school to maintain security in the rest of the facility.

Universal Design: New school designs need to abide by the dictates of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires schools to offer people with disabilities the same access to facilities and programs as those without disabilities.

Many planners are taking the concept of accessibility to another level - universal design. Accessible design focuses on disabilities, but universal design focuses on all users.

The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University, Raleigh, N.C., defines the movement as "the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, without the need for adaptation or specialized design."

The center spells out seven principals of universal design: equitable use, flexibility in use, simple and intuitive, perceptible information, tolerance for error, low physical effort, and size and space for approach and use.

A national design competition sponsored by the Chicago Public Schools will result in two new elementary schools that "showcase the newest and best in universal design." As many as 20 percent of the students who attend the schools will be children with disabilities.

"In schools issues of universal design are especially important in terms both of integrating students with disabilities into the general school population and teaching all children a respect for diversity and recognition of the needs of others," the competition form explains.

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