10 Steps to Success

Dec. 1, 2008
Even in a struggling economy, schools and universities can provide stimulating and appealing learning spaces.

As gloomy financial news piles up day after day, schools and universities across the nation are struggling to keep their systems operating. In California, education officials have been warned to prepare for cuts of $2 billion to $4 billion. The Dallas school district has fired hundreds of employees as it wrestles with an estimated deficit of $75 million.

But despite the money woes weighing down education institutions, students continue to show up every morning and fill the seats in millions of classrooms and lecture halls. They are there to learn, and schools and universities have to take advantage of the resources they still have and provide the most effective educational environment possible.

That means that schools and universities have to work harder to provide facilities and campuses that are safe, healthful, modern, flexible, environmentally sensitive, well-managed, inviting and, of course, cost-effective. In short, education administrators have to continue to do what they always have tried to do: maximize their limited resources to provide a high-quality education to their students.

Here are 10 areas that education administrators can target as they work to create and maintain facilities that offer a high-quality learning climate:


In the best of economic times, education institutions struggle to find enough money to provide the programs and services their communities demand. As 2008 comes to an end, the reality for most schools and universities is that they're going to have to make do with even less. From coast to coast, state and local governments are slashing their spending, and those reductions invariably affect education funding, which makes up a sizable share of most state budgets.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has warned educators to prepare for cuts of $2 billion to $4 billion. In New York state, Gov. David Paterson is proposing a $585 million reduction in school aid for fiscal year 2008-09, and an $844 million reduction for fiscal 2009-10. The Dallas district has laid off more than 600 employees since the school year began to cope with an estimated $75 million budget shortfall.

Under such financial pressures, education institutions have to be more careful than ever about allocating their resources wisely.

"Schools want to get the most value for the money they spend," says Mark Gerner, an architect with SHW Group. "The degree of scrutiny over every dollar is higher. You need to communicate the value of what you're doing."

Each institution has unique characteristics that will determine how it navigates the rough financial conditions. Earlier this year, the Clark County (Nev.) district cited the shaky economy as one reason it rescinded plans for a $7 billion November bond proposal. But officials in the Los Angeles Unified School District assessed the financial climate and the mood of its constituents, and decided to press ahead with its own $7 billion bond request, which voters overwhelmingly approved last month.


The school facility built a few years ago isn't necessarily the ideal learning environment for the students filling classrooms today, or the ones that will come through the doors a few years hence. So in assessing their facility needs, schools and universities need to have a vision of how education may change and how learning environments will evolve to meet the needs of the coming generations.

"You have to be agile," says Mark Gerner, an architect with SHW Group. "Schools need to be flexible enough to incorporate new technology and accommodate different learning styles."

Technological advances are making it possible for education institutions to individualize learning for students, and schools and universities should provide spaces for formal and informal teaching and learning to occur.


Persuading people to support education with their tax dollars is a constant task for schools and universities. When economic conditions are poor, as they are now, education institutions can bolster the support they receive by making their institutions integral parts of the communities that lie beyond campus boundaries.

Establishing connections with the community can have financial benefits — schools can team up with partners such as other governmental entities and share the costs of building and operating joint-use facilities. The facilities will be used more extensively when they are opened up to others in the community besides students, and community members will be less likely to view schools as something separate from the rest of the neighborhood.

Schools and universities that seek out strong connections with the people that surround their campuses make it possible for those neighbors to experience for themselves the important role an education institution can have in shaping and leading a community.

Health and Safety

The financial constraints confronting many schools and universities may prevent administrators from pursuing renovations and other campus improvements as aggressively as they would like, but education institutions must make sure that the spaces students will occupy for several hours a day do not endanger health or safety.

Providing acceptable indoor air quality is especially critical for schools because of the greater vulnerability children can have to contaminants. Administrators should make sure facilities are designed and equipped properly to keep pollutants out, provide fresh air, and prevent buildup of moisture that leads to mold growth.

Another aspect of health that schools and universities are being compelled to address is nutrition. As concern grows about obesity problems among young people, health advocates and educators are looking more closely at the lunchrooms and dining halls that feed millions of students each day.

Schools and universities are becoming more aggressive about discouraging consumption of soft drinks and junk-food snacks, and altering their menus to provide students with meals that have less fat and are more nutritious.


Effective learning will not take place in an environment where students constantly are looking over their shoulders in fear of intimidation by school bullies or the next explosion of violence from a troubled classmate. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) says that in 2005, 1.2 percent of students age 12 to 18 reported being a victim of violence at their schools.

Student-on-student violence can occur among friends, as it did last month, when a 15-year-old girl was shot to death by a classmate in a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., high school. Or a student can be victimized by random violence, as it did the day before the Florida incident, when a 14-year-old boy entered a Montrose, Colo., high school, where he was not a student, and slashed the throat of a 17-year-old girl. (The girl underwent surgery after the attack and is recovering.)

Violence also plagues higher-education campuses. Less than a year after the tragic killings at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, a gunman at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb killed six and wounded 18 in a shooting rampage.

The effects of violent episodes can spread far beyond the victim and contaminate the climate of an entire campus. Schools and universities have worked to deter violence on their campuses and respond more quickly when incidents occur. Those strategies include adding school resource officers or other public-safety personnel; outfitting facilities and campus grounds with surveillance cameras and access-control systems; establishing anti-bullying and other intervention programs that can identify students or others on a campus who may be prone to violence; and building a comprehensive and speedy communications system that can alert students, staff members and others about potential threats and provide guidance on how to respond to them.

School designs can create more open spaces so that teachers and administrators can see who is coming and going, and monitor student behavior more easily.

Environmental Stewardship

Economic hardship may tempt some schools and universities to cut short-term costs at the expense of long-term benefits. But the education institutions that have embraced sustainable design and construction, and other green practices, know that short-sighted facility decisions can cost more in the long run.

The embrace of the green movement by the education community continues to grow as administrators realize that environmentally sensitive facilities consume fewer resources, cause less pollution, provide more healthful spaces, last longer and offer important learning opportunities for students. (For a greater examination of green schools, see "10 Paths to Green".)


Over the years, when schools and universities have faced budget crises, the funds allocated for maintenance often have been the first to get cut. In the 1970s, when student enrollment began to decline and many school facilities were allowed to age and deteriorate, the practice of "deferred maintenance" was so common that the phrase became an embarrassing symbol of the neglect.

Schools and universities have learned the hard way that inadequate maintenance inevitably leads to more serious problems and shortens the life of a facility. If deferring maintenance is the knee-jerk response to any budget crisis, education institutions will never catch up and their facilities will be plagued with maintenance trouble forever.

Computerized maintenance-management programs can help school administrators establish a regular, comprehensive schedule for building maintenance tasks and use objective standards for determining which jobs should take priority.

Learning Climate

Many educators believe that the number of students in a classroom is a critical factor in bolstering student achievement, especially in the primary grades. But having fewer students per classroom means that schools need more teachers — and the money to pay them. Education institutions strapped for funds are finding it difficult to meet the class-size-goals mandate that states have imposed.

In Georgia earlier this year, Gov. Sonny Perdue acquiesced to budget pressures and agreed to grant waivers for the next two years for school districts who can't meet the state's class-size mandates.

Smaller schools are another way that districts are trying to create improved learning conditions. Throughout the nation, small-school advocates have launched programs to create smaller schools.

"Small schools provide a personalized learning environment where students work on complex projects, study multidisciplinary topics, meet high expectations, and effectively demonstrate what they know and can do," says the Oregon Small Schools Initiative. "Students in small schools are also more engaged in the life of the school — they participate in more extracurricular activities and report feeling a part of shaping a positive school culture."

Renaissance 2010 — Chicago's plan for creating new, high-quality schools and phasing out failing campuses — calls for most new schools to have small student populations. Since 2005, the district has opened 76 Renaissance 2010 schools.

"National and local research has demonstrated conclusively that students achieve more and are more likely to graduate and go on to college in a small school," the school district says. "Accordingly, most high schools created through Renaissance 2010 should be no more than 600 students in grades 9 through 12."


Despite the dismal economy, educators and administrators should strive to make their facilities inviting and aesthetically pleasing spaces where students and staff feel welcome. Many new schools are including spaces where students can gather informally and interact outside the more formal setting of the classroom.

Some high schools, seeing students flock to Starbuck's and similar operations before and after classes, have opened coffeehouses and cyber cafes in their own buildings to keep the caffeine-fueled discussions and Internet surfing on campus.

For colleges and universities that continually are competing for students, creating appealing spaces applies not only to a student's academic life, but also to a 24-hour existence that includes food, shelter and recreation. That means residence halls that provide amenities that students have come to expect in their home lives, such as apartments and suites that offer more privacy than housing from previous generations, and dining options more diverse and flexible than the typical institution food service of the past.


As students change the way they tap into information and communicate with their classmates and friends, the learning environment should be able to adapt to their preferences. Laptop computers and miniature devices such as iPods are becoming de rigueur equipment for the 21st-century student, and schools and universities should provide ways to make the technology a seamless part of the campus environment.

For many education institutions, that means establishing wireless Internet access on their campuses so students and staff can have immediate access to online sources of information. Interactive whiteboards are supplanting chalkboards and overhead projectors, and giving instructors new ways to present material to students. The growing reliance on laptops, cell phones, MP3 players and other mobile devices will require abundant and easy-to-access electrical connections to keep appliances charged and operating.

Mike Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].

About the Author

Mike Kennedy | Senior Editor

Mike Kennedy, senior editor, has written for AS&U on a wide range of educational issues since 1999.

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