Talk of the Town

Riley: For our last program of the 1997-98 school year, we've chosen a topic that looks to the future: How to design and build schools that we need for the next century.

Our nation faces crucial challenges, a rapidly growing student population that is already overcrowding our schools, and deteriorating facilities in urgent need of replacement or major repair. Many of our present schools are too large and impersonal, and not conducive to safety and discipline. One estimate from the General Accounting Office says that we will need to build 6,000 new schools in the next decade.

The other challenge is that our nation is changing the way we define who is a student. Schooling now begins typically around age 3 and extends well past high school and college as more students are pursuing goals of lifelong learning. These changes require our communities to rethink the way that schools should be built and equipped.

The facilities that we build now will serve our students for the next 50 years. What should they look like? How can we design schools in a creative and thoughtful way that makes the best use of all we know about how students learn and teachers teach? How can school districts enlist the entire community to become actively engaged in planning and supporting construction projects? And, finally, how can we design schools that can be true centers of the community, accessible to all citizens?

Moderator: Tell us more about the challenges we face and about how we can design and build the schools we need in a thoughtful and more inclusive way.

Tirozzi: You have to involve the faculty, the administration, the parents, the communities. You really have to get this coalition of support.

We have a tremendous need to renovate our schools and to build new schools in this country. It's not simply the bricks and mortar that will make the difference. It's the configuration of the bricks and mortar, and the spaces the bricks and mortar create. Also, we're going to have to look carefully at how we design schools, as the Secretary said, to reach youngsters-preschool through and including high school and beyond; the community-school concept.

I think in America the day is long gone when schools can close at 2:30, weekends and summers. The school is a major capital investment for every community in this country. This community [Charlotte-Mecklenburg] has made a wise investment, and it's not just what happens in the traditional 8:30 to 2:30, but also throughout the year. It's an inclusive process.

Moderator: How does it translate, as a superintendent, to try to get the community involved, especially folks who may not have children in the public schools?

Smith: I think a couple of things. One is a lot of the real honest talk; and there has to be open dialogue with the community as a whole regarding the status of our schools.

My time here in Charlotte really speaks to the issue that people in general want quality public education, whether they're retirees or whether they're without children or whether they have families attending our schools or not. I think the issues that quite often communities don't face is 'what is the status of our schools and what needs to be done in order to correct the issues that we have.'

We face phenomenal growth in Mecklenburg County. We also have very old schools. I wish they were only 50 years old. Some are 60, 70, 80 years old and they need tremendous repairs. When I visit with this community, I never hear people say 'we want to deny this of our children, an opportunity to attend a school of quality.' But quite often they're unaware.

I think the honesty and open dialogue about the issues in a community are critical if you're going to end up with bonds passing and if you're going to have good design of schools.

Moderator: Mr. Secretary, what legislation is pending on the federal level [regarding school construction]?

Riley: The issue of school construction is generally perceived to be, of course, a local responsibility. We observed this as a major national problem, and the President recommended then to the Congress, within the balanced budget, a framework that we provide some support for school buildings throughout the country. Not bricks and mortar, but to help with the financing of it; to help with the interest cost.

The proposal the President made would cost the federal government some $10 billion over 10 years. It would amount to around $22 billion of school construction, which would be a major construction program throughout the country. It was defeated in the Senate and in another measure in the House. It's coming back up, I think, this week in the House and perhaps later in the Senate.* It's in the tax code, and not in the appropriations bill, because it is in the form of a tax cut. The people who would buy the bonds would get a tax credit that would cover their interest. It would be a strong incentive for the local school districts to issue bonds.

Moderator: What did you want to have happen in this school [Vance High School] that was different than some of the other schools where you've been an administrator?

Clark: I think the key thing if you're looking at other high schools in the district was the opportunity to have more interdisciplinary teaching occurring, where teachers in different content areas are located in close proximity to each other, and have the opportunity to plan and coordinate instruction. The flexibility of the design of this facility allowed me to come in after the design was totally complete and really make simple modifications in terms of how classrooms were used and located.

In many high schools you might have your English department on one hallway and social studies on another. Here you have an 11th-grade American literature teacher across the hall from an American history teacher, and the opportunities for interaction, joint projects, that type of thing, is very real and possible because of the close proximity. So a simple readjustment of how classrooms are organized within a facility because of flexibility in the space has created a totally different learning environment for the students in terms of being able to read a piece of literature and study about that same period in history with the teacher right across the hall.

Tirozzi: I think another unique aspect of this design is the concept of the village. You know, my own experience in education, elementary people hardly get a chance to talk to middle-school people who, god forbid, should ever talk to high-school people. The way this is configured, there is a tremendous potential.

Ann and I were talking about this earlier-they've already come up with creative ways so the elementary staff, middle-school staff and high-school staff will talk to each other. High-school students are working with elementary-school students; 11th- and 4th-graders are doing projects together. It may be unique in the way this place has been configured, but it's a tribute to the architect for the design of the complex.

Moderator: How was the school designed with technology in mind?

Smith: When a young man walks into this media center, he not only sees the print material that surrounds him and the wonderful artwork, but also sees all the computers and the technology that are connected to the Internet, to other schools in Mecklenburg County, to homes in Mecklenburg County, and to the world.

In the construction realm, not only is it important in our new facilities, where it [technology] should be part of the planning, but our ability now to move into older facilities where we have to bring them up to standard-bring in the technology, drop the lines and run the cable. That is proving to be a major problem. We're continuing to look to industry. We've had a good partnership with the Chamber [of Commerce] in trying to bring that kind of technology to our older facilities-the one [challenge] that I think this whole nation is wrestling with in bringing the technology standards up forour country.

Riley: A lot of children who are here in this school wouldn't have computers at home, and this is probably their only chance to really get familiar with the life of technology. And they'll come out of here either going into colleges or careers, and everything is going to be computers. It's very, very important for them to have this kind of experience in their learning years.

Moderator: How does this change students' learning?

Russ: The role of the teacher has changed. Before, [the role of] a teacher perhaps was more of a lecturer. Now we see the teacher as a facilitator. Computers are helping to do that, and we're trying to design spaces now that will help do that, and will give group meeting rooms and small spaces for students to use computers.

Audience member: I've devoted three years to studying the infrastructure of maintenance. I'm concerned that we're not focusing on our operating expenses, and how we are going to pay for them long-term.

If we put a new school in place tomorrow and we don't have a way under the current operation to create a maintenance reserve, we end up creating functional obsolescence in a new school. Over a period of 15 years, with the deterioration, we'll be back to the taxpayer to ask for more dollars to support infrastructure repairs as we are here in Mecklenburg County. Our school system last year asked for $415 million. We got another $500 million to do this for the coming year.

The issue I have, Mr. Secretary, are we addressing a way to get a central diary developed of maintenance operating expenses so the school systems of the country can dial into that to see if they're running their schools most efficient?

Riley: Most of the issues you mentioned are local issues and not national ones. While we have this enormous need for new and improved schools, we didn't take that [maintenance] into consideration from year to year all through the years. So I think you bring up a very good point, and I would hope that all school districts would think that out.

Of course, most of them are desperately trying to get enough schools, but the idea of allowing for school decay and deterioration is very, very critical and important.

Audience member: My comment is related to capacity, or utilization. I know a lot of times we speak to the capacity of inner-city schools, and my question is: Do we adequately facilitate the use of that facility?

For example, multiple users and multiple uses. Superintendent Smith is familiar with a school here in Charlotte. We partnered with the police and the community in that one facility. We addressed a lot of the issues such as security, which is a major issue now. We didn't create a fence; we created a community policing station inside the school.

A partnership with parks and recreation allowed us to create a larger gym facility that allowed the community to use the facility when the school was closed. The community also was able to have senior-citizen programming, and some meeting and activity spaces.

Smith: I think that's a good example of how partnerships can really pay off in a community. Inner-city urban environments pose special challenges to school systems and communities in how to best deal with the issues of upgrading and renovating school facilities. And quite often we have to use some extreme efficiency of space, and that calls for us to partner with parks and recreation to make our facilities open for more purposes so that we can get the maximum use and efficiency out of a relatively small space.

I also think we need to be much more creative in how we design buildings in urban centers. Quite often we need to look up rather than out as we do in suburban portions of our nation, and that takes a new kind of creativity to bring new facilities to some of the more established neighborhoods in our cities.

Moderator: Regarding designing schools-and designing the school may not necessarily mean designing in terms of building from bottom up-but redesigning and rethinking the function of the school. How do you get people in the business community to rethink that?

Belton: We have developed a program called Project Facelift, where we have brought together landscape artists, architects and interior-design people to look at old schools, to figure out are there some cosmetic ways that we can help enhance that school. We may not have a magnet program or special funds to be able to help with the new technology and all the things that may go in there, but we can give that same feeling that would inspire kids in a new school in an old school; at least a little bit.

Audience member: What are architects doing to benchmark what's being done-the best practices nationwide-in order that we don't recreate the wheel every time?

Russ: There are a lot of lessons that we can learn from the past. And I think as we try to build new schools, we need to learn from some of those.

For instance, a lot of the schools that were built in the 1950s are the buildings that we're tearing down today because they were built cheaply and quickly and with no eye to the long-term maintenance of that building. The buildings we're able to renovate are the schools that were designed in the 1920s and '30s that were built to last.

We need to be careful with our decision-making now that we're not building too cheaply and too quickly with this big boom that we have. Let's make sure that these buildings are going to last 50 or 60 years.

Moderator: Could you give us a quick overview of how the safety issue can and should be addressed as we rethink the design of our schools?

Tirozzi: With all that's going on in our society, it has to be a prime consideration. First and foremost, I don't personally think the answer is always rushing to put in metal detectors, security workers and what have you. Those are important in certain situations. I think we have to look at the climate within the school. That in and of itself can lend itself to safer schools.

One quick thing: When you walk into the main office here, if people haven't noticed, the wall is all glass. You don't have to wonder what's behind the wall or what they do behind the wall. I think that in and of itself is a statement for trust between the people who walk the hallways and the people who work in that environment. Things like that make a difference. The width of the hallways; the ability to see in corridors.

Ultimately, while design is important, safety is really partly a condition of the quality of the people who work within the structure. And developing the trust-teachers to students, students to teachers and, of course, parents feeling welcome in the building is important.

Moderator: If you had the opportunity to give some advice to schools and communities who are looking at this issue, what would you tell them?

Clark: My advice would probably be to design schools that are very flexible, that accommodate what needs to happen in terms of classroom instruction, as well as the needs of the community that surrounds that school. Understanding that schools do belong to the community-they're not just for those who teach and learn in the building from 7:30 to 2:30 everyday.

Belton: I would suggest looking at the curriculum first and involving the business community. You don't know exactly what's going on in a business, if that's what you're trying to produce, good workers. Also, deal with the whole maintenance issue.

Russ: I think that environment really does have a big impact on learning, and I think it's a point we need to make. There have been a lot of studies that say a good environment-a good school facility-improves test scores, and improves student behavior and teacher morale. It's an important issue and one that I think, if we tell our students that they're important and that their education is important, we need to give them a good facility.

Smith: Invest in the future. This is a national interest of national importance. We've got to spend the same kind of attention and resources on schoolhouses as we do on freeway systems, prison systems, dams and the rest of our infrastructure as a nation.

Riley: Plato said 'that which is honored in a country is that which will be cultivated there.' When you go into a community and you see an immaculate prison and a broken-down school, you wonder what's honored in that community. This is the education era and nothing could be better for a community, for a city, for a state, and for this nation, than to go in and see wonderful schools. That makes a great statement and it's very important for education.

Moderator: We've been talking all night about imagining the future, and we know that some of the most imaginative minds are the young ones in our schools right now. With the help of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools' television services, we visited second-grade students at First Ward Elementary School and asked them what the schools of the future will look like. Here are some of their answers:

"Globes will be much bigger. Probably they'll be more parts of the world. They'll probably have a big globe because of Saturn and Mars."

"It would be like a bigger building, and you could read anytime you wanted to."

"I think we'll have more computers so they can have more fun and they could do homework at school."

"I would rather have it painted orange because orange is my favorite color."

"It would be shaped like a ball, like a circle. Triangle windows."

"You'll have school buses that look like limousines."

"Each kid would at least have one pencil, and that pencil, you could use it for a year, and you never had to sharpen it."

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