When you close your eyes and try to envision a classroom, the first thing you probably see are desks. Whether it's children learning to read in first grade, or students trying to unravel the secrets of James Joyce in a graduate-school seminar, desks are a common denominator in most educational facilities.
But it takes more than desks to outfit a school, especially as schools and universities try to respond to changing curricular needs and the potential of technology. A well-equipped school also will have tables of various shapes and sizes, shelves and other places to store materials, computer workstations, carts, writing boards and cabinets.
As is the case with the desks they purchase, schools choose other furnishings by balancing aesthetics, architects' recommendations, staff preferences, durability, flexibility and cost.
“We give schools a lot of latitude in the furniture they select,” says Judy Unter, coordinator of interiors and furnishing for the Jefferson County, Colo., School District. “Each school is different in terms of its architecture and personality. We don't want cookie-cutter-stamped spaces.”
School districts frequently involve principals, teachers and community members in decisions about the design of a facility. In many cases, that participation also extends to furniture choices.
One classroom teacher might prefer a rectangular table, while others might find a kidney-shaped or a round table more suitable to their teaching styles. A school that needs to quickly convert a cafeteria to assembly space might prefer long rectangular tables with attached seats, while a school that emphasizes the social aspects of lunch period might choose smaller, round tables that make it easier to chat with fellow students. Color preferences and other aesthetic issues can affect the choice of furniture.
“In this district, we have site-based management,” says Sandra Blake, a buyer in the purchasing department of the Kent, Wash., district. “The individual schools make their own purchasing decisions.”
Individual choices aren't the final word, however. Schools still must stay within their budgets and, in many cases, must work through purchasing-cooperative and approved-vendor lists to select the desired furniture.
“We take into account the personal preferences of principals, department heads and teachers,” says Unter, “but we don't let them go overboard. A lot is decided during the development of the design, when there are a lot of people involved from the faculty and the community.”
Many schools and universities establish written standards for classroom furniture and equipment. In its educational specifications, Jefferson County encourages principals, advisory groups and furniture committees to keep designers informed.
“It is very important that… the architect be given as much information as possible with regard to how rooms and spaces will be used, where furniture will likely be placed, and how equipment will be used and by whom,” the district's specifications state.
The University of Florida's Office of Instructional Resources has a detailed checklist for what furniture and equipment should be included in classrooms and lecture halls — the types of seating, the size of tablet arms, and the number and size of chalkboards, whiteboards and bulletin boards.
To provide the most efficient use of space, schools look for ways to combine functions and provide maximum flexibility.
In the Capistrano School District in Orange County, Calif., besides the standard list of furniture — an activity table, bookcase, file cabinets — classrooms are outfitted with a “teaching wall,” says Terry Fluent, a buyer/planner for the district.
“The teaching wall is a built-in wall that slides from side to side,” says Fluent. “It has a whiteboard on it, and when you slide it open, there are bookcases, shelving, cabinets and a place for the teacher to hang a coat.”
The desire for flexibility applies to school offices, too. “We have modular furniture in most of our office space,” says Blake. “That allows us to have a lot of flexibility.”
Flexibility also is desirable in specialized classrooms, such as labs. The Capistrano district purchases tables with adjustable legs, so that they can be used with either stools or chairs of normal height.
A chemistry lab might require more expensive tables coated with an epoxy resin to ward off damage from chemical spills; labs where such dangerous material is not present can use a less expensive laminate surface.
Room for technology
Most classrooms now have computers, which means schools have to find a place to put them. Some schools prefer to place the machines on carts to maximize flexibility, while other classrooms have them placed on fixed tables along the wall to help students avoid the tangle of wires that otherwise would be exposed. Because students of different sizes will be using computer workstations, flexibility is vital for these furnishings, too.
What works well in an office setting may not stand up to the wear and tear of daily student use. In Jefferson County, staff members typically have keyboard trays as part of their computer set-up, but in classrooms, those proved to be a maintenance headache.
“The students would come in and drop their backpacks on the trays and break them off,” says Unter. “We started putting the keyboards on the desk surface.”
SIDEBAR: Anatomy of an Ohio classroom
The website of the Cincinnati school district describes the manual as “a six-inch-thick binder (that) gives standards for everything that will go into new or renovated school buildings — from furniture to windows to the size of the classrooms and the equipment each classroom contains.”
The manual says a standard elementary classroom should accommodate up to 25 students, have 900 square feet of space and include these features:
Student desks or tables and chairs.
Computer workstation furniture.
Teacher desk and chair.
Heating and air conditioning.
Open casework for coats.
Sink with drinking fountain and cabinet.
Video port, monitor and brackets.
Voice port, phone and intercom.
Data port for teacher workstation.
Four data ports for student use.
Kennedy is staff writer for AS&U.