REIMAGINING, RETHINKING & REBUILDING AMERICA’S SCHOOLS

An Architect’s Perspective

03/03/2017
Facilities
By Robert Just, Megan Fagge and Sophia Tarkhan

In a recent interview with NPR, Ted Kolderie, a leader of the charter school movement, stated, “If students don’t want to learn, you can’t make them. So any effort to improve learning must begin with improving student motivation. I challenge people to explain how a conventional school is designed to maximize student motivation. They can’t.” While Kolderie’s statement may be strong, many would agree that student motivation is a key contributor to success. When we consider the aging and ailing schools most students attend, and the outdated infrastructure that awaits them, the idea begs genuine reflection. 

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With the average American school well over 40 years old, our mission to maintain and improve these investments is critical. After all, schools directly impact our most important asset: our children.

As schools built to accommodate the baby boomer generation continue to age, migration to the Southeast continues to rise, and student populations continue to shift — many school districts find themselves in a difficult position. They’re finding many of their classrooms are not only in poor condition, but also in the wrong location. Unfortunately, funding often falls short of need, which makes rebuilding America’s schools in the Southeast a task that will require more than just strategic planning. 

With the average American school well over 40 years old, our mission to maintain and improve these investments is critical. After all, schools directly impact our most important asset: our children. It should be no surprise that aging buildings need upkeep and revision, but it may be even worse than we estimate. One survey of the condition of America’s public schools put it succinctly stating, “When a school is 20 to 30 years old, frequent replacement of equipment is needed. Between 30 to 40 years old, the original equipment should have been replaced, including the roof and electrical equipment. After 40 years, a school building begins rapid deterioration, and after 60 years most schools are abandoned.” This an unsettling summation of the situation, to say the least, placing the bulk of our schools in the “rapid deterioration” phase. The data also demonstrates our elementary schools, housing our most vulnerable students, may be fairing more poorly than our secondary schools. 

Many schools find themselves in endless cycles of far-reaching repairs and renovations along with depleting budgets. The aforementioned survey of school districts determined that an estimated outlay of $197 billion would be required to bring buildings to a “good overall condition.” This is a staggering number. To put it into perspective, NASA’s 2017 budget request was only $19 billion, even more remarkable when you consider the noteworthy things they plan do with the requested budget. Our school systems estimate that with $197 billion they could bring the facilities to a condition that “meets all reasonable needs for normal school performance” and provide buildings that “would be most often in good condition.” It is no surprise that met with failing buildings and budget challenges, not to mention the business of educating students, most administrators are forced to use a “Band-Aid Approach” that simply kicks the can down the road. 

As you often hear in the business world, “Problems don’t age well,” and it’s certainly no different here. The process of rebuilding America’s schools will require collaboration, substantial creativity, and perhaps more than a little courage as districts carve out long-term strategies to address their learning environments. But let’s not forget, in planning there is opportunity. Now is the time to be improving efficiency, sustainability, security, addressing health concerns, and reconfiguring our schools to accommodate current teaching and learning practices including project-based learning, and the well-known, technology-rich 21st century learning. Over the next few SEEN magazine issues, we will dive deeper into the challenges facing most school districts and examine them from varying points-of-view.

In order to successfully reimagine America’s schools, three key contributors will need to work together: educators, administrators and architects. As pedagogy evolves, educators will need to give voice to the impact of the built environment on teaching and learning. Collaboration among designers and teachers gives rise to creative solutions that uniquely facilitate learning. Administrators, needing to masterplan the allocation of funds, will need to find creative ways to provide the highest level of education while still maintaining bottom lines. This may include making bold moves, reimagining long-held ideas, and challenging some of our most basic concepts of school. Architects will need to find ways to address aging infrastructure, create healthy environments, and craft 21st Century Learning environments that are more efficient, cost less to build, and reduce operating expenses. Architects, educators and administrators must all do their part, working together as a team, singularly focused on education.

Educators

Education has shifted significantly in the last several years. As innovation and design make their way into the mainstream classroom, everything from the curriculum to the classroom layout is being re-evaluated. The focus on project-based and personalized learning, and the influx of technology both in and out of the classroom, has challenged the belief that a traditional lecture style setup is best practice. Even the simple notion that there is a definable “front of classroom” is being challenged in many schools. Learning environments as varied as the learners themselves are proliferating. 

The reimagining of the classroom invites a reconsideration of its larger context, the school itself. In one survey of educational facilities, it was found that 37 percent of schools are utilizing portable facilities. While that may not be a great surprise, the next finding may be, for less than half of those are overenrolled or at capacity. To put that in other words, for most of the schools that found it necessary to utilize portable classrooms, configuration not crowding was the cause. The schools listed reduced class sizes, the implementation of academic support programs, and added curriculum among the top reasons for their use. It bears consideration whether the traditional design of schools matches up with the realities of education today.  

Educators and architects need to work together to find ways to refine the spatial layout of a school, minimize underutilized spaces, and ensure that the overall design ultimately advances the primary educational objective. 

Administrators

Administrators must play a significant role in rebuilding, or should we say, re-envisioning America’s schools. Private schools as well as public school districts are challenging long-held assumptions about education, and these innovations may offer insight for districts looking for creative solutions to old problems. 

As Kyle Wingfield wrote, “Most people probably don’t think of one-room school houses as the future. Maybe they should.”Micro schools are garnering the attention of journalists from NPR to Wired magazine, and are emerging across the country. Hailed as competition for private schools, public school systems should not overlook them. Besides embracing new educational practices, these start-ups, so to speak, are finding creative ways to reduce costs, and districts may find something to learn from their approach. 

School districts across the country are looking for creative solutions. In Arizona, a four-day school week has been found to be effective. Many schools are finding public/private partnerships or joint enrollment options as a way to expand curricular offerings without adding operational expenses. 

Private schools have long faced the reality of competition in their operations. Many have used their educational environments alongside their curriculum as a way to establish market differentiation in a crowded arena. Although we will attempt to stay clear of politics, it’s safe to say that the coming administration and the new Secretary of Education will have a significant impact on the future of public schools. It is too early to determine now, but one thing is likely, competition for students and the dollars they bring will, for better or worse, challenge how school districts operate.

Architects 

There are opportunities going unrealized that hold great potential for districts. For instance, there have been many technical advances in both materials and systems that could significantly reduce long-term operating expenses. Polished concrete flooring, for example, yields an attractive, and moreover, durable end product that requires minimal maintenance. However, long-term savings often lose out to shortsighted budgets when the final decisions must be made. The seemingly cost-conscious flooring commonly used in schools instead requires repeated stripping and waxing for the life of the floor, an expensive and time-consuming undertaking. Many districts feel their hands are tied and favor falls on low up-front cost. This is true of mechanical and lighting systems, glazing, roofing and many others. Though operational and construction costs are often budgeted separately, they should be considered in concert.  The most cost-effective option long-term may not be “old reliable.”

Many school districts are finding their buildings require significant operational and maintenance dollars to keep them viable. Districts are forced to use limited funds to nurse along buildings which, when in working condition, may not meet current educational programming requirements as was discussed earlier.6 Older buildings may also be carrying additional serious and costly concerns. Mold, PCB’s, and lead in the drinking water are just a few on the list of environmental and health concerns plaguing older facilities. Baltimore City Schools made the difficult decision to disable the water to many of its fixtures after higher than acceptable lead levels were discovered in many schools. They have been relying on bottled water at great expense for a decade. Even with a strained budget, there are times when the best choice is to replace the school altogether.   

School systems are placed in a difficult position as they make sense of facility reports, wrestle with issues of equity across their districts, and grapple with rapidly changing approaches to education and technology. Educators, administrators, and architects must draw on one another’s expertise to craft creative long-term strategies to these issues. In the coming articles, we will dive deeper into rebuilding America’s schools by looking at schools and districts that are trying innovative approaches and by examining studies and research that indicate how change in the future might happen. Just as best practices in teaching and learning are evolving as students change and the body of research grows, our school buildings must also respond to and reflect a changing society.   

Robert Just, Principal Design firm Cooper Carry’s K-12 Education Studio, Megan Fagge, architect with Cooper Carry’s K-12 Education Studio, and Sophia Tarkhan, architect with Cooper Carry’s K-12 Education Studio.
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Issue 18.3 | Winter/Spring 2017

Southeast Education Network

Our Mission: to reinvigorate the spirit of American education