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Outlook 2013

Jan. 22, 2013
Education administrators embark on another year of stretching limited resources to provide high-quality learning environments.

With thousands of schools and universities from coast to coast providing instruction to millions of students, it's difficult to generalize about what is in store for those institutions in 2013.

Some school districts serve booming areas and are grappling with how quickly they can build new facilities to accommodate the student population. Other districts have seen their enrollment erode and must carry out school closings or program cuts so they can operate more efficiently.

Some education institutions have to deal with the damage inflicted on their facilities by the fury of nature, while others have to address building problems brought on by neglect or deferred maintenance.

The nation's economy, while no longer at the depths it was four years ago, has not improved to the point where education institutions can be assured that they will receive the funding needed to avoid further cutbacks and provide a suitable education to students.

So, regardless of where they are situated or the specific conditions they face, schools and universities in 2013 will have to address familiar issues that confront them every year: providing adequate classroom space where students can learn effectively; wrestling with budget restraints that limit the ways they can improve education offerings; striving to provide clean and healthful facilities so that students can learn effectively; and making sure that students and staff have the resources needed to achieve educational goals.

But overshadowing all the issues facing education institutions in 2013 and beyond is the safety of students and staff on campuses and schoolhouses. As the new year began and classes resumed this month, the shock of the horrific tragedy in Newtown, Conn., was still being felt in classrooms and administrative offices across the nation. As educators and administrators determine whether they need to make changes in the wake of the Newtown shootings, school security is certain to be a major focus for 2013.

Closings

Shuttering a school is typically a painful process for the community it serves, so many systems try other ways to cut costs before heading down the closing path. But many districts have endured several years of shrinking budgets, and to use their resources more efficiently, they must consider eliminating facilities.

Underutilized classrooms waste resources when student numbers drop and facilities operate at less than capacity. Several large, urban school systems are exploring whether to eliminate the excess classroom space that has amassed over the years. In Chicago, the 400,000-student district has more than 100,000 underutilized classroom seats, and by the end of March, officials are expected to announce which campuses they plan to close. Some have speculated that as many as 100 of the city's 680 public schools could be closed.

In Philadelphia, school officials have proposed closing 37 schools; eliminating the excess space would increase the city's building utilization rate from 68 percent to 80 percent. The Tucson (Ariz.) district, which has about 100 campuses, will be closing 11 schools at the end of 2012-13.

Other large-scale closings are being considered in Washington, D.C., where 20 schools are on the chopping block, and Baltimore, where a long-range plan calls for shuttering 26 schools over 10 years.

Security

Keeping school grounds and buildings safe is a priority for most districts and higher-education institutions. The importance of that effort comes into clearer focus when an incident occurs that quickly becomes another symbol of deadly and tragic school violence. The mention of Columbine or Virginia Tech immediately brings to mind the multiple shooting deaths that devastated those communities; now Sandy Hook and Newtown represent the latest chapter in a sad narrative.

On Dec. 14, a gunman, after fatally shooting his mother, headed to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown and opened fire with a semiautomatic weapon. Within minutes, 20 children, ages 6 and 7, and six adults were killed. The gunman subsequently shot himself to death.

RELATED: Reaction to Newtown, Conn., school shooting

The enormity of the massacre is likely to prompt educators, law enforcement agencies and other public officials to review the plans they have for providing security and responding to a crisis to make sure they it remains up-to-date and effective. Already, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy has formed a commission to see what changes might improve school security and student safety, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has created a similar task force in his state.

The U.S. Department of Education's crisis planning guide says a response plan should address four elements: prevention and mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. Crisis plans should be tailored to the specific conditions at a particular campus or building, and employees should go through training and drills to make sure they are familiar with the elements of the plan.

Many schools have increased the presence of police or armed security personnel in the weeks since the Newtown tragedy, and the National Rifle Association is leading a call to put armed security in every U.S. school. Taking the opposite path, a superintendent in a district in Washington state is suggesting that school police and security guards be disarmed.

Construction

Although the overall financial outlook for education institutions is one of limited resources and restraints on spending, many schools and universities in 2013 and beyond will spend millions of dollars to build needed facilities or renovate existing space.

Projections from the National Center for Education Statistics say that public school enrollment in elementary and secondary schools will increase 7.3 percent from 2010 to 2021. This equates to more than 3.6 million students, and schools will need more classrooms for them.

Fueling much of that growth will be the 13 states in the West region, which will see a projected 12.7 percent enrollment gain from 2010 to 2021. The 16 states (and Washington, D.C.) that make up the South region are projected to increase enrollment by 8.9 percent in those years.

For post-secondary education, the NCES projects that from 2010 to 2021, enrollment at colleges and universities will climb 14.6 percent, from about 21 million to a little more than 24 million. The projected growth will come on top of actual growth in higher-education enrollment of 46 percent from 1996 to 2010.

In addition to those schools and universities who have to make room for more students, nearly every education institution has to devote some of its budget to renovating and upgrading existing facilities so that they are safe and healthful and able to accommodate the latest instructional strategies.

Budgets

Education budgets have taken a beating since the economic collapse in the fall of 2008. With less funding to run schools, many administrators have had to curtail programs, lay off employees and forgo new learning initiatives. As of July 2012, school districts across the nation had 328,000 fewer jobs than they did in 2008, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says.

The center analyzed education spending for 48 states from fiscal 2008 to 2013 (Hawaii and Indiana do not publish education budget data in a way that allows historical comparisons, the center says); it found that 35 states are providing less education funding in fiscal 2013 that they did in 2008; 17 states have cut education spending by more than 10 percent over those five years.

"State education cuts are counteracting and sometimes undermining reform initiatives that many states are undertaking with the federal government's encouragement," the center says, "such as supporting professional development to improve teacher quality, improving interventions for young children to heighten school readiness, and turning around the lowest-achieving schools."

The climate is looking up, or at least less gloomy, in some areas. In November, California voters approved Proposition 30, a sales and income tax increase that will provide revenue to schools so they don't have to make an additional $6 billion in budget cuts.

Maintenance

New buildings or old, large budgets or small, maintenance needs are a constant for schools and universities. In the last 20 years, as school buildings constructed to house the Baby Boom generation have begun to show their age, many administrators have had to deal with the costs of not paying enough attention to maintenance.

Many facilities that were built quickly and cheaply in the 1950s and 1960s and have been inadequately maintained have resulted in school buildings with leaky windows and doors, poor indoor air quality and bad acoustics. Those undesirable conditions can make it difficult for teachers to teach and students to learn, and many create health problems if the building problems are left to fester.

Schools and universities have made progress on addressing their deferred maintenance needs since the federal government focused attention in the mid-1990s on the extent of the problem, but the budget reversals that educators have endured in the last four years have made it difficult for education institutions to allocate the needed resources to maintenance and cleaning.

The reality for most school maintenance staffs is that they will be asked to do the same amount of work or more without additional resources. That means they have to work more efficiently. Many institutions use a computerized maintenance management system that enables maintenance departments to keep accurate information about the facility so they can prioritize projects based on objective data and not on guess work or whoever is complaining the loudest.

Classroom Technology

In 2013, expect to see fewer students lugging a backpack laden with books from class to class. More schools have begun to use tablet computers to supplant textbooks and other educational materials.

RELATED: A trend for tablets

With these lightweight devices, students can carry with them mounds of data in digital form and have access to materials with sound and video instead of the two-dimensional offerings found in textbooks. The machines and the applications that can be loaded onto it also enable students to interact with each other, with teachers, and with other people around the world.

The dominant tablet model is the iPad, which Apple unveiled less than three years ago. The market is becoming more crowded with machines of varying sizes from Amazon (Kindle), Google (Nexus), Microsoft (Surface), Barnes & Noble (Nook) and others. Some studies have indicated that use of tablet computers may help boost student performance.

In one of the largest educational iPad purchases to date, San Diego Unified School District spent $15 million on almost 26,000 devices that were distributed across 340 classrooms at the start of the 2012-13 school year. The purchase was possible through a voter-sanctioned funding program, Proposition S, which allocates money for modern technology to local schools.

Education administrators will have to weigh if tablets are an affordable option for their schools and which machines are most compatible with their needs.

Online Courses

Because of improving technology, it is easier for people to connect to the Internet from just about anywhere. Thousands of students now take courses from online universities that aren't restricted by available classroom space. And students, without the barrier of distance, are able to gain access to a wide array of classes and educational resources that may not be available at local institutions.

In 2013, many colleges and universities may join an online movement that has been gaining momentum in the last few years: offering online versions of many of their courses for free. Massive open online courses — known as MOOCs — are available over the Internet from a growing number of institutions. Students typically do not receive credit hours for the coursework, but they also do not have to pay tuition or worry about whether there will be room for them in the class — some courses have attracted more than 100,000 students.

Later this year, Georgetown University, Wellesley College and the University of Texas system are scheduled to begin offering online courses on edX, a MOOC created in 2012 by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The University of California, Berkeley, also has joined and is already offering courses.

Through Coursera, a MOOC that has 33 university partners, students can sign up for classes such as "Introduction to Logic" from Stanford University" or "Astrobiology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life" from the University of Edinburgh.

Sustainability

To use their limited funds for facilities most efficiently, education institutions are continuing to incorporate sustainable design and construction practices into their construction and renovation projects.

A sustainably designed facility is one built in a way to limits its impact on the environment and one with systems that help conserve water and use energy more efficiently.

The U.S. Green Building Council, which certifies facilities as green through its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, has registered more than 2,700 K-12 school projects and more than 1,000 higher-education projects that are seeking or have received certification for sustainable design and construction.

RELATED: Top 10 States With Most LEED Projects

In addition, some schools and universities who want to build environmentally friendly facilities but avoid the paperwork and expense of pursuing a LEED certification can incorporate the sustainable principles advocated by the Green Building Council or other supporters of green schools such as the Collaborative for High Performance Schools.

The Green Building Council says that 12.7 million K-12 students and 4 million college students attend institutions that have adopted green building policies.

Social Media

For millions of people in 2013, communicating on social media such as Facebook and Twitter has become a routine part of their lives. Schools and universities are no exception to this trend, and many education institutions use these online avenues as a way to communicate with students and their families, employees and the public at large.

Just as some schools have debated over how to deal with the proliferation of cell phones among students, many have struggled with social networking: Would the new technology become a distraction detrimental to learning, or would embracing communication methods already popular and heavily used by students enhance the school experience? Should teachers or administrators use Facebook or Twitter to communicate with students? Should students be allowed access to social networking sites at school?

The initial impulse to view social media as an unwelcome intrusion is beginning to change as it becomes apparent that Facebook and Twitter have become entrenched in students' lives.

"There is a growing recognition on the part of teachers, education support professionals, school administrators, and prominent educational experts that emerging digital technologies are here to stay and, when used properly, can offer substantial educational benefits," says a report from the Consortium for School Networking.

It recommends that schools embrace social media so that students learn how to use it wisely and safely.

"One of the most powerful reasons to permit the use of social media and mobile devices in the classroom is to provide an opportunity for students to learn about their use in a supervised environment that emphasizes the development of attitudes and skills that will help keep them safe outside of school," the report says.

Bullying

Among the issues that can undermine security in a school is the presence of bullying. Students that are being bullied can sustain physical, mental or emotional injuries that can threaten their well-being. In some cases, students who have been bullied have decided to retaliate by carrying out a violent attack against their aggressors, or the school in general.

RELATED: Bullying Prevention for School Safety

The federal government has created a website to provide schools and the general public with resources to help combat bullying. Stopbullying.gov is a joint effort of the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice.

Actions that school officials can take to combat bullying of students include:

  • Conduct assessments to determine how often bullying occurs, where it happens, how students and adults intervene, and whether prevention efforts are working.
  • Launch an awareness campaign to make anti-bullying objectives known to the school, parents and community members.
  • Create a code of conduct and a bullying reporting system to create a climate in which bullying is not acceptable.
  • Establish a culture of acceptance, tolerance and respect. Reinforce positive social interactions and inclusiveness.
  • Incorporate bullying prevention material into the curriculum and school activities. Train teachers and staff to give them the skills to intervene consistently and appropriately.

To ensure that bullying prevention efforts are successful, the site says, all school staff need to be trained on what bullying is, what the school's policies are, and how to enforce these rules. Training can take many forms, including staff meetings, one-day training sessions, and teaching through behavior modeling. Training can be successful when staff are engaged in developing messages and content, so make sure they feel their voices are heard.

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @SchoolhouseBeat.

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