Defining Quality

The debate about what constitutes a quality education has picked up steam in recent years, especially as such controversial concepts as vouchers and charter schools infiltrate the education landscape. Rarely a day goes by without some group, organization or political entity expounding its vision on what it will take for students to excel and schools to compete more effectively.

Less time and energy, however, is spent examining where education takes place - the physical facility - and defining what constitutes a highly effective environment that is not only conducive to teaching and learning, but also encompasses the qualities that will inspire students, teachers and staff to succeed.

Schools and colleges are spending record amounts of money on construction ($30 billion in 1999, AS&U, May 2000), and robust activity is projected over the next few years. But are the dollars being spent in the most effective way? And do buildings being designed and constructed today meet the needs of the curriculum, as well as the community?

Many experts stress the need for standards in education, but the discussion typically focuses only on such things as testing and academic performance. Shouldn't the discussion of standards also include school facilities, and the establishment of "model-school" criteria that can be used as a blueprint for every new or retrofit construction project?

The million-dollar question then becomes: How do you define a quality educational environment? Is it in the construction materials used and the systems incorporated? Is it the technology available? Is it the types of spaces that students, teachers and staff have access to? Is it smaller class sizes? Or is it as simple as providing a clean and healthy environment where children do not feel threatened? In this month's cover story, AS&U's Mike Kennedy explores how some schools are working to create what they consider quality educational environments (see p.14).

Wherever the issue of quality, standards and school facilities takes us, there is one position at both K-12 and higher-education institutions that has the ultimate responsibility to see that infrastructure goals are carried out - the director of facilities. And the need for information and sharing of best practices regarding school facilities has never been greater.

To better address this, APPA (Association of Higher Education Facilities Officers) established a task force in 1997 to explore creating a K-16 school facilities managers group that would, among other things, "facilitate information sharing relating to standards and best practices at schools and universities."

Many of the same skills and job functions are required at both types of institutions. As stated by a facilities director at a medium-size private college who previously had served as director of facilities at a medium-size public school district: "Making the move was an easy transition. I have many of the same responsibilities and do much of the same type of work now as when I was with the school district. After all, a roof is a roof and a window is a window whether it is a school or a university."

Ed Smith, director of facilities at the University of Rhode Island and chair of APPA's K-12 task force, has kept me informed of the progress the group is making. According to Smith, who previously served as executive director of facilities management at both Pueblo School District No. 60 and the University of Southern Colorado - simultaneously - says that while strides are being made, progress has been slow.

One of the things the task force is finding is that "the use of labels (i.e., K-12 facilities managers, higher-education facilities managers, etc.) is a true impediment to progress across the profession. There is belief that if everyone were simply referred to as an `educational facility manager,' the task at hand would be much simpler."

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