At some point, most education administrators must make difficult decisions because of fluctuating student enrollment. In the past, they might have spent months collecting student and facility data, hand-counting student population in certain areas, and driving throughout their communities to find available and affordable land for new school sites.
Now, administrators can gain access to that information in minutes with a remarkable technology called geographic information systems (GIS). Everything they need to know about their school system is available at the click of a button: data about students' residences, grade levels and socioeconomic status; how enrollment is expected to change in five to 10 years; projected housing construction; size and capacity of existing facilities; district boundaries; and more.
GIS is portable, and the software can be run from a laptop computer — projected for all to see during work sessions and community meetings. Once information is entered into the GIS system, school officials can maintain and update it themselves.
In a nutshell
GIS is a collection of computer hardware, software and data that enables education facility planning firms to capture, store, update, analyze and display all forms of geographic information. Some people refer to it as an interactive map because it involves a mapping interface. Unlike a static paper map, a GIS map is multi-dimensional and dynamic; it combines many layers of information and can be modified easily for analysis.
A student database can be converted into GIS data by mapping each student's home addresses and tying that information to data on grade level, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and education classification. The process then overlays existing school facilities, attendance boundaries, land use, land parcels, subdivision boundaries, roads, rivers, railroads, parks, crime locations and projected housing sites to determine:
School feeder patterns.
Effect of new housing developments.
Locations for special-education or English as a second language (ESL) services.
Options for consolidating or closing schools.
Locations for new schools.
Districtwide facility master plans.
Once the GIS data is in place, the institution can hold community-based meetings to open the lines of communication, ease tension and build consensus about potentially controversial issues such as redistricting, consolidating or closing schools.
Future facility planning
GIS gives administrators the tools to analyze student demographic and geographic data in a new way so they can provide the smartest, safest and most efficient environments for students and teachers. A few examples:
- Redistricting and school closures
When a Midwestern district needed to close one of its eight elementary schools because of declining enrollment, GIS helped administrators, community members and school board members determine the following information:
How much the number of school-aged children within the district was projected to decrease (nearly 700 in addition to the decrease of 1,200 students already sustained by the district).
Where the decline was likely to occur.
Mapping scenarios that factored in building capacities, optimal class size, transportation, as well as racial and socioeconomic variables.
The ability to geographically demonstrate the proposed solutions.
A rapidly growing suburban school district continues to use GIS to project new residential subdivisions and the number of students that will be living in each. Once administrators understand how many new students to expect in kindergarten through 12th grade, they can plan new school facilities accordingly. GIS continues to help them:
Analyze existing subdivisions to determine how many students per housing unit live in each.
Identify existing and future land use with the potential for new housing development.
Determine projected student enrollment (how many new students are expected in each new subdivision).
- Homeland security
Several districts worked together to pursue a grant from their state's department of homeland security to improve their response rate to any potential disaster scenarios.
GIS overlaid student demographic information with roads, railroads, streams, businesses and government offices to determine how close students were to highways, railroads and industrial and commercial facilities.
Emergency-management personnel, police and fire departments, and school and county officials were trained to maintain and update the system. This collaboration ensured each would respond accordingly in a crisis.
For example, if a train carrying chlorine gas derails in the county, GIS quickly identifies which school facilities, students, homes, businesses, government offices, roads and bus routes are affected. It also provides an instant list of students' parents and phone numbers so school administrators can contact them immediately. In addition, GIS allows EMS crews to analyze road networks so they can re-route emergency medical equipment to the accident location quickly and find strategic locations for decontamination tents.
Hwang is GIS manager at DeJONG, an education facility planning firm based in Dublin, Ohio.
Number of ways that GIS can be viewed: the database view, the map view and the model view.