In the seven years since its passage, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has rendered changes in school design that are clearly visible throughout the country. Entrances rarely have stairs, and those that do are ramped; bathroom stalls are larger and equipped with grab bars; alarms provide both audio and visual warnings; and everyone is able to reach the auditorium stage for performances and graduation exercises.
Such design elements make the school building more easily accessible at little additional cost of construction. However, while ADA compliance eliminates the first set of barriers that people with disabilities face--stairs, small parking spaces, back-door entrances, small bathrooms, etc.--it does not go far enough in making the educational process available to all members of the community.
Universal design, a concept that goes beyond the ADA's minimum compliance standards, can remove other less obvious barriers and make schools more accessible to people of all ages and abilities. The term "universal design" can be misleading, since the designs are not necessarily similar to one another; they are universal in the sense that they make facilities more easily usable by all people to the greatest extent possible.
Universal design addresses such issues as diversity and inclusion, more classroom teachers and aides, technology, and community/school relationships. Each of these factors can have a significant impact on the school's design.
Diversity and inclusion Until about 25 years ago, children with disabilities were removed from mainstream classrooms and placed in specialized learning environments. In accordance with today's more enlightened educational techniques, public schools now integrate children with a much broader range of abilities, languages, learning styles and cultures in one classroom. One teacher cannot address all the different needs of these students, nor can one textbook accommodate their diverse learning styles.
Behavior that was unacceptable 25 years ago now is managed by a teacher with the aid of specialists. Students with hearing impairments who formerly were sent to separate schools now are part of the class, along with a sign-language interpreter. A student who cannot turn a page independently is outfitted with a computer and a head stick, and is assisted by a full-time aide.
Students who need extra help reading are placed in a special reading group within the classroom and also go to other rooms for additional tutoring, often in a space converted to suit that purpose. Students who speak different languages have assistants in the classroom and may also go to English-as-a-second-language classes outside the classroom.
As a result of the trend toward inclusion, the typical one-teacher classroom is becoming a thing of the past. In today's elementary schools, the teacher is often accompanied, at one time or another, by a special-education aide, sign-language interpreter, subject specialist, student teacher and/or volunteer. As children with special needs, who often constitute 20 percent or more of the student population, are mainstreamed into local schools, more aides are required in the classrooms.
A universally designed school includes group offices for teachers who plan multiple curricula and manage the assistants and specialists in their classrooms. It also provides adequate space and furnishings for both students and adults in the classroom. Teaching and learning now occur in a constantly changing setting of independent work, tutoring, small- and large-group instruction, and peer instruction. Specialists come and go from the classroom, as do students, entering and leaving for specialized services. These changes in the educational environment raise several questions:
*Is the conventional 900-square-foot classroom still the right model for today's elementary schools? *Are the traditional desks and chairs still the most desirable furnishings for classrooms? *Can education keep pace with the needs of the workplace without embracing technological advances?
Technology as a tool Technology is more than a fad in today's schools; it is an essential component of teaching, learning, administration and professional development. By the time they graduate from elementary school, students are expected to be book-literate and computer-literate. Consequently, computer and communications technology have become an increasingly critical element in the education process.
Given the capability to customize curriculum materials for students with different learning styles and abilities, textbooks and worksheets are being supplemented--and even supplanted--by interactive, electronic books.
The textbook industry has begun developing universally designed curriculum materials that can be presented in print and electronic forms with various accommodations built in. Print size can be enlarged for students with sight limitations, and the computer can read aloud to assist students who are just learning to read.
Students and teachers often interact around computers in small groups or as whole classes with large-screen computers. Classrooms, however, are generally inadequate to accommodate the advances in technology and the teaching/learning styles that accompany the effective use of technology in the classroom.
All too often, computers and printers are perched on desks that were not designed for their use, and rooms are too small to meet minimum per-pupil space allocations. While many districts are planning for the electronic and wiring requirements of technology, few are allocating the additional space needed to support it. Head-end rooms, which house the central network and the network administrator, require extra space. When facility standards are not adequately updated, schools may have to use space needed for technology to accommodate other necessities such as storage, or vice versa.
Community/school relationships Educators recognize the need to establish close ties between schools and their communities. Parents, businesses, libraries, senior centers, and churches and temples are all important adjuncts that contribute to a successful education.
Some school media centers are decreasing in size, as the ability to retrieve information electronically reduces the need for book storage and, often, seating in individual school libraries. On the other hand, as schools reach out to more people to participate in the educational process, space is needed to accommodate them. Parent volunteers, aides and assistants need access to a telephone and a computer in a working space that does not intrude on someone else's territory.
Many schools have a designated community room for such purposes, and some states will reimburse the costs of this additional space. However, community and school interaction does not always have to take place in the school. Preschools and secondary schools often provide better educational value if they are located elsewhere. A preschool can sometimes find a convenient and cheerful home in a shopping strip. The educational needs of high-school students might be met better by serving internships in local business offices and community centers than in a 100,000-square-foot high-school facility.
The factors of diversity and inclusion, more adults in the classroom, technology and community/school relations all have a significant impact on design. Yet, most school finance and construction efforts still reflect post-World War II educational standards: One teacher with one desk per classroom; no phone, no computer and no personal storage space; one teacher teaching a single, large group of students, each of whom has a desk and a pencil instead of a computer and printer.
IBM currently is engaged in a major research and development effort on elementary-school education. It now is completing the first round of a $25 million "Reinventing Education Initiative" aimed at developing cutting-edge technologies to solve difficult educational problems. Its goal is to support fundamental school restructuring and broad-based systemic changes to improve student performance in our nation's public schools.
These demonstration projects are using inventive technologies for professional development, curriculum improvement, administration and facilities management. But none of the demonstration projects is addressing the relationship between the integration of technology and the design of schools.
It remains for facility planners and educators, acting together, to continue to embark on innovative efforts to reshape schools, enabling them to respond to today's educational strategies. Many of these new approaches are driven by special-education mandates and the demands of increasingly diverse communities. The net result, however, is the evolution of educational facilities models that are more effective for everyone.