Connected and Comfortable

Schools need furniture that can accommodate changing instructional styles, diverse student characteristics and classroom technology demands.

Ask people of a certain age to describe the classrooms they attended in their youth and you're likely to hear about straight rows of identical desks with a teacher at the front lecturing to students. Classroom technology consisted of a pencil sharpener, or maybe an overhead projector.

Today's generation of students would paint a different picture. In their classrooms, students work together in small groups as a teacher roams the room to monitor progress or lend a hand. Computers with connections to the Internet are available in the classroom.

As education has evolved over the years, so have the furniture needs for schools and universities.

"Having the desks in straight lines is not the way things are done anymore," says Doug Snyder, assistant superintendent of the Issaquah (Wash.) School District. "We need to have flexibility."

MOVABLE SEATS Whether a school outfits its classrooms with tables and chairs or more traditional desks, it is looking for equipment that can take maximum advantage of available space.

"That usually means tables and chairs that are flexible and movable," says Dwayne Odvody, director of purchasing for Lincoln (Neb.) Public Schools. "Individual desks are bulkier and more difficult to move. A lot of times, it means putting furniture and equipment on wheels."

Maximizing space means that many schools can't afford the luxury of classrooms dedicated exclusively to one subject.

"Before, your high school might have had a room that was designed specifically for science or art," says Odvody. "Now we have to look at using those rooms in multiple ways."

In Issaquah, elementary schools typically have either two-student tables and chairs or individual desks. Flexibility is paramount.

"It's important that the tables or desks can be arranged into groupings," says Snyder.

PLUGGED IN A decade ago, the Internet and World Wide Web were terms known only to a few computer enthusiasts. But in the 1990s, as technology became more accessible and affordable, schools recognized the educational potential that the Internet offered.

With encouragement - and billions of dollars in funding - from the federal government, thousands of schools have connected their classrooms to the Internet. For that computer equipment to fit comfortably into a classroom setting, schools need to have furniture designed to meet the special needs of technology.

"You have to accommodate the power lines, the network connections, the line drops," says Snyder.

Odvody says Lincoln seeks out desks and tables with fliptops that conceal the tangle of wires that link computers to the school network and the Internet.

The prevalence of technology in the classroom also means that schools must pay greater attention to the chairs students use when they are seated in front of a computer.

"You need tables and chairs that are adaptable to meet the individual student's size," says Odvody. "We spend a lot of time on ergonomics."

Chairs and tables that can be adjusted also can help schools abide by the guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

BUDGET WISELY As with all facility issues, furniture purchasing depends heavily on how much money you have available.

"You can't be too extravagant," says Snyder. "People will think you're spending too much money."

In Issaquah, the district bought chairs for a library that were more expensive than usual. Snyder says the district believed the additional cost was justified because the chairs created a better environment for studying, but still people complained to the district about overspending.

"The chairs were controversial because they were different and they cost more," he says.

Careful planning also will lead institutions to choose furniture that is durable. The fewer pieces of furniture you have to replace, the less often you have to persuade officials to squeeze money from a tight budget.

To prevent money issues from becoming an obstacle, says Snyder, schools should plan thoroughly for their anticipated furniture needs. By having a comprehensive plan, an institution can include the costs of furniture and other equipment in its capital spending requests or bond proposals. An administrator that doesn't try to anticipate a facility's furniture needs in a capital-spending plan may have to vie for scarce funds in a school's operating budget.

"The first thing I would recommend is, before you cut your first purchase order, put together a master plan for everything you're going to need," says Snyder. "If you don't, there may not be money available later on and you won't be able to purchase the things you need."

The price might be right, the upholstery attractive and the materials durable, but the chairs you order for your classrooms and offices won't be worth it if your students and staff can't get comfortable in them.

Students may spend several hours a day in these seats, so it is important for schools to consider how their chairs perform ergonomically - how well the chairs allow those sitting in them to carry out their tasks comfortably and safely.

Here are some characteristics to look for that can enhance a chair's ergonomic effectiveness:

- On each side, the seat should be at least one inch wider than the hips and thighs.

- The chair should be easily adjustable; the crease at the back of the knee should be no more than 1/2-inch above or below the hip.

- Consider chairs that have seat-tilt available if tilt would help students maintain a balanced posture for their tasks.

- Seats cushioned with high-density foam can provide better support.

- Make sure chairs can be adjusted high or low enough to meet the needs of all students who will use them.

- Look for backrests that adjust vertically as well as forward and backward. Backrests should be cushioned for support of the lower back.

- A chair should have space between the lumbar support and the seat for hip room.

- For students and staff members who move their chairs frequently, a swivel chair provides good mobility. Chairs with a five-legged base provide the greatest stability.

- If you purchase a chair with a ring for foot support, make sure that the ring is the same diameter or larger than the seat; this allows a student's knees to remain at a 90-degree angle.

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