There's no doubt that the population of school-age children in this country is on the upswing and has been for several years. Current thinking is that those numbers will continue to rise well into the first decade of the new millennium. As administrators address the task of educating children in record numbers, they face other challenges as well. High-quality public education in today's environment means more than simply providing classrooms for students; it is a mixed bag that requires new programming and sophisticated technology in often inadequate buildings and with limited funds.
Besides an increase in the sheer number of students, the demographic explosion facing many communities often involves diverse populations that seem to develop overnight. Years ago, immigrant students were educated by immersion. Now with public schools offering ESL (English as Second Language) and bilingual courses, new services and the space to provide those services are required.
In addition to responding to diverse populations in new ways, other requirements, such as mandatory preschool classes, special-education classes, handicapped accessibility, computers in the classroom, and high-technology media labs add to the demand for more and better facilities. New laws requiring equal-opportunity athletic programs and full-day kindergarten push space demands even further.
Building consensus Good planning and a consensus-building approach are key. Many school systems, however, do not have the adequate technical or professional staff to do comprehensive planning of their physical facilities. A good, professional planner brought on-board early in the process can be the difference between a successful response to immediate and near-future needs and one that falls far short of meeting its requirements.
"The planner is a catalyst to help administrators understand alternative approaches to solving their facility problems," says Richard Fryberger, senior planner at Harvard University. "Administrators contribute to what is essentially a collaborative process by developing a clear understanding of their needs, which means allotting time up front to think through the issues."
Problem identification, or determining facility needs, is the least expensive part of the building process and yet often it is not given the time and attention necessary to be done properly. Without clearly identifying a school system's physical space requirements, it is impossible to determine effective solutions.
Other common pitfalls include:
-Rushing the process without allowing time for each step.
-Not consulting with users.
-Writing an incomplete building-program statement.
-Failing to learn from the success/failures of existing facilities.
These mistakes can be costly, not only in expenditures, but also in the program's overall ability to serve current and future space needs.
Common sense Because of the lifespan of school facilities, there is a certain amount of carefulness that needs to be put into place at the front end. That carefulness can be defined as a common-sense approach that incorporates planning, from the moment the demographics begin to change, with an accurate assessment of current facilities, as well as an understanding of the new demands on physical space.
To develop a successful long-range plan, administrators need to assess existing buildings in relationship to projected needs. The potential for continued use or reuse of current facilities is critical for developing comprehensive budgets and schedules, and for exploiting resources to get the most out of school-building funds.
The evaluation process Evaluating existing school buildings is a complex equation that requires examination of site size and potential for growth, building conditions and age, as well as costs to modernize. Planners play a key role in determining the best, most economical way to meet a school department's building needs by helping with decisions such as whether to renovate, relocate, or add to existing facilities.
Also, to be done well, assessing current facilities requires a team effort involving a variety of experts led by a physical-facilities planner who is an architect operating as a planner. While the planner's job is to see the broader scope, the architect focuses on the site, the building and the programming requirements. Merging these perspectives enables the planner to establish site-specific assessments that respond to how to best achieve the overall goals of the school system.
As with any plan to adequately address school space needs, whether they are curriculum or technology-based, enrollment driven or simply a matter of aging buildings, administrators must evaluate all facility options with a clear vision for the future that is tempered with reality. This vision must include an understanding of the community and the ability to build consensus among various constituents, as well as provide practical solutions to the school department's needs.
Many administrators struggle and ultimately fail because they cannot get community support for their projects. As any administrator trying to get funding for a capital project knows, getting interested groups, such as political leaders, community task forces, government officials, school boards, taxpayers and parents, to agree or to at least come on-board and support a plan is essential.
The diplomatic approach The best approach to diplomacy is preparation, an understanding of the community and a workable plan. Planners contribute to this process by developing practical solutions that demonstrate awareness of the community's concerns along with knowledge of how to meet its facility needs. Good planners then work with administrators to sell their solutions to the groups involved.
In most cases, earning community support is not about funding as much as it is about developing realistic solutions that have a future beyond solving today's crisis. In addition to meeting current demographic and programmatic requirements, a strategic plan with a future requires a look at the past to examine trends and determine what happened to cause prior changes.
In addition to collecting data and building consensus, priorities naturally evolve during the planning process. It is only through realizing a balance between ideal goals and budgetary constraints that realistic, effective solutions can be achieved and the most pressing problems solved.
One example of the impact of changing demographics on public education is Parker Elementary School in Quincy, Mass., which serves about 350 students. In 15 years, the school went from having three Asian students to a population that was 50 percent Asian. The profound changes to the school and its surrounding neighborhood demanded a drastic and immediate response from administrators on many levels, from meeting physical space requirements, providing new curriculum opportunities and understanding cultural differences, to promoting cooperation and offering services to support this new community.
"We were using every available inch of space and were not able to deliver quality services due to the deficiencies of our buildings," says Eugene Creedon, superintendent. "We did not have appropriate space for ESL programs or Title I programs; meanwhile, our enrollment continued to go up."
Quincy, which is located about 15 miles south of Boston, is a small, blue-collar city that has experienced a steady flow of new residents since its public transportation system began providing direct access to Boston 20 years ago. Many of the new residents are immigrant families, and the city has a 27 percent minority population.
Like many cities across the country, Quincy faced a crisis in terms of being able to meet expanding educational requirements for an increasing and increasingly diverse student population. That crisis culminated in 1995 when Parker Elementary School needed immediate attention. In addition to its enrollment increases and high number of immigrant students, the school was overcrowded and lacked even basic amenities, such as a gymnasium or a cafeteria. It was just one in a series of facilities the city had to address.
"We knew that solving one school's space problem in one neighborhood wasn't enough," says Creedon. "What were the other facility issues? What sort of future could we give these schools? Was it possible to upgrade our older buildings, rather than construct new ones? If we did renovate, how could we be responsive to the historical nature of our buildings, whether they were built in the early 1900s or the 1950s? If we built new schools, which ones should be replaced? What approach made the most sense economically?"
Cole and Goyette Architects and Planners developed a plan for the Parker School that included a new 7,500-square-foot gymnasium/cafeteria, along with an elevator providing handicapped access to all three floors. In addition, the ground floor was redesigned to accommodate four new classrooms for kindergarten and first-grade students.
One challenge the Quincy school system faced was the need to reopen a school that had served as a community center for nine years. The center was popular with senior citizens, with students using it for after-school programs, and with parents using it as a daycare site. At first glance, it was not an easy site to take back from the community. But as the administration examined enrollment needs and existing buildings, reopeningthe school seemed the most viable solution to their pressing space problems.In the last four years, Creedon has overseen the renovation and additions of two elementary schools and one middle school, as well as construction of a new, 600-student elementary school. In addition, Quincy purchased 17 acres of land on which to begin construction of a new $40 to $50 million high school. All this renovation and construction has occurred in a city that had not built a new school since 1975.
When planning to construct or renovate facilities, consider the following steps:
-Start early to allow time to complete the process.
-Define educational philosophy, programs and goals.
-Identify the problems and assess needs.
-Establish priority needs whether in terms of enrollment, curriculum, technology or other issue, including immediate, near-future and long-term projections.
-Examine current facilities to learn what worked (or didn't) and why.
-Consult with user groups.
-Review population trends and future projections.
-Survey conditions of existing facilities for potential uses.
-Develop options regarding renovation, additions, reuse or existing sites, proposed new facilities and other significant factors in determining building solutions.
-Enlist community support and make judicious use of task forces, citizen focus groups and building committees.
-Review plans periodically and make adjustments as needed.