Preparing For Change

Key design challenges for charter schools.

The first charter school in the nation, City Academy, opened in St. Paul, Minn., in 1992 with 90 students. Ten years later, 575,000 students were attending 2,700 U.S. charter schools.

Some of these schools are in new facilities, but most are in nontraditional settings such as vacant commercial buildings, office buildings or churches. Those circumstances create planning and design challenges.

Each state has facility requirements or guidelines for designing a public school, but charter schools do not have to follow these guidelines. The curriculum often is nontraditional and subject to change. Many charter schools rely on some classes or mentoring at off-site locations.

One charter high school has developed three distinct models for delivering curriculum: a mix of project-based, traditional classroom and individualized learning opportunities through greater use of the community as a learning site; a college-preparatory emphasis; and a business education with nontraditional hours and curriculum.

Accommodating those three models has led the school to redesign the facility just two years after opening. The original open-classroom concept, surrounding a flexible team-learning area, used office landscape partitions to create a corporate environment with individual student workstations. This concept is being remodeled into individual classrooms because of student behavioral issues and sound-transmission problems between the open classrooms.

Changes in curriculum, delivery methodology, use and facilities can take place quickly at charter schools. Administrators can anticipate those changes in several ways:

  • Develop a master plan that will allow for conversion to other curriculum offerings or a return to a more traditional curriculum.

  • Create a long-range plan for potential facility changes, especially for secure connecting links between buildings in a campus setting.

  • Provide adaptable facilities with movable and relocatable wall systems, lighting, electrical outlets, wiring and ventilation systems.

  • Create compartmentalized building areas to rent for outside use to provide revenue-producing opportunities.

  • Be aware that a charter school may need to add support facilities, such as a media center, library, technology center, nurse's office, lecture hall or a technology studio.

  • Be open to converting departmentalized standard-size instructional spaces to smaller generic spaces.

  • Understand that the overall building area in a charter school may be 25 to 40 percent less than a traditional public school.

  • Understand that nontraditional school settings may not have space for student parking, environmental study, physical education and athletic fields.

Rydeen, FAIA, is an architect/facility planning specialist and former president of Armstrong, Torseth, Skold & Rydeen, Inc. (ATS&R), Minneapolis.

He can be reached at [email protected].

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