What If

Smart Schools

One of the largest statewide expenditures in public infrastructure goes to building and maintaining public schools. This year, public K-12 school enrollment reached a record 5,844,111 students, surpassing the previous all time high by more than 110,000 students. Enrollment has more than tripled in the past 50 years. The estimated growth in student enrollment is approximately 50,000 students annually. New enrollment records will continue to be set for the next nine years, increasing to an estimated 6,180,921 students in K-12 public schools by the 2007/2008 school year. This constitutes a total increase of 547,275 students, or 10 percent between 1997 and 2007. This estimate includes a decrease of 345,193 Anglo students and an increase of 800,000 Hispanic students, indicating the current and continuing demographic trend toward greater diversity, but, in part, also the decision of many Anglo parents to leave the public school system.

The renovation and replacement of educational facilities is currently in a state of crisis. It can take up to seven years to run the gauntlet of local and state approvals and procedures before a school is ready to serve its constituents. As a result, school boards and building officials are working hard to get facilities on line faster. Larger and larger schools are being built in an attempt to address the problem. In an attempt to save time and money, districts are sometimes forced to replicate building plans that are outdated with respect to current educational research and teaching strategies. In most cases, projects move forward without much involvement from students, parents, educators and community members, all who have a long-term stake in the outcome. The result is often community alienation, disenfranchisement or even backlash.

There is a woefully inadequate allocation of time and money for planning how schools will fit into their communities; how the efficiencies of building larger and larger schools may not be justified in light of critical social and educational consequences; how combining school and community uses could produce more efficient and community centered environments for learning; or even for adequately identifying risk factors like building on toxic waste sites and other environmental hazards that can lead to mistakes at a scale that would have once been considered unimaginable.

It's not always that there isn't enough time allocated to get the job done or enough well - intentioned people running the show. It's not even that everybody isn't working hard enough. Rather, in its haste to get something accomplished, the system can't seem to work smart enough to accomplish an increasingly complex set of needs with a limited quantity of resources.

The current need to renovate or replace educational facilities presents an opportunity for citizens, educators and planners to take a much smarter view of the design of learning environments. This "smarter" view can include everything from how learning spaces are designed to the process used to plan and design them. More traditional educational facilities were once designed to sustain a model of education characterized by large-group, teacher-centered instruction occurring in isolated classrooms. But current knowledge and research about learning calls for new models. These new models of education are characterized by more active student involvement - by students doing rather than just receiving, creating rather than recreating, thinking, working and solving problems. They are supported by strategies such as cooperative, project-based and interdisciplinary learning, all requiring students to move about, work in various sized groups and be active. Furthermore, new models call for all students to learn to higher standards. This in turn has resulted in an increased emphasis on learning styles, multiple intelligences and the special needs of each student.

Smart school planning and investment means replacing the current factory schools with facilities that support these and other examples of current best practices and ongoing research in the learning sciences. This means, among other things, that school populations should be significantly less than previously projected, and that large school populations may in fact be detrimental to the learning process. The development of smaller schools on smaller sites can also save time and money, and put schools closer to parents and students, allowing schools to better serve as centers of their communities.

There are also opportunities to accommodate more efficient and productive uses for educational facilities. For the most part, school facilities in California have been, and continue to be, designed and constructed to serve a specific educational purpose based on a limited educational function. Most educational facilities operate during a 7-8 hour time frame as stand alone institutions, with limited access or joint use by other community organizations. In most cases, the auditoriums, sports facilities, food service, libraries, media center, computer labs and other specialized areas of the school are available for use by the general public only on a very limited basis. Thus, local municipalities must provide duplicate facilities to serve the same functions, with separate budgets for capital improvements, staff and operating expenses.

Smart school planning and investment means designing facilities that can accommodate expanded community functions to save on the time, money, land and other environmental resources used to duplicate functions elsewhere. Smarter designs for new or renovated facilities can accommodate direct community access to spaces like libraries, gymnasiums, auditoriums, performing arts, athletic and recreational spaces that can serve the broader needs of the community. Instead of being designed for a limited time frame of 7 - 8 hours every day, combining community uses can produce facilities that operate 12 - 14 hours, serving a wide range of community needs that can also include things like health clinics, counseling centers and other social services. These designs can be implemented without jeopardizing the health and safety of students, by having certain community activities take place during school hours and others limited to evenings and weekends. The result of these smarter and more efficient joint use design strategies is to reduce duplication of community infrastructure.

Today's educational facilities should also be designed to strengthen the integral relationship that exists between a school and its community in other ways. They should serve a variety of community needs in partnership with a wide spectrum of public, civic and private organizations. They should provide spaces for public meetings and activities. They should provide access to communications technology. They should help meet the leisure, recreational and wellness needs of the community. They should support relationships with businesses that are productive for students and supportive of the local economy. They should provide spaces that facilitate the use of external experts and skilled community volunteers for a variety of functions, including mentorships, apprenticeships and work-based and service learning. When implemented through a community-based planning process, the results can also include increased community engagement and support for a wide range of cultural, social, economic, organizational and educational needs

Smarter schools should be inviting places rather than foreboding institutions. Their locations should encourage community use and their shared public spaces should be accessible - day and night, all year round - to the community. Schools should be places where creative configurations of space expand their use to encompass early learning and adult education; where learning occurs "after hours," at night and on weekends; where school-to-school partnerships, links with businesses and collaboration with higher education are encouraged and supported. They should enable learners of all ages and serve as centers for lifelong learning. Today we know that 12 or 14 years of learning will not be enough to equip people for the rest of their lives. We can't afford to think of graduation as a finish line, and that means that one of the most important end products of schools needs to be citizens who have learned how to continue to learn. Schools should support learning for people of all ages. In short, school facilities should allow access to flexible and comprehensive programs to meet all learning needs. They should provide space and programs for everything from early learning to adult education and training.

Smarter school planning and investment can also extend the learning environment beyond the traditional school site by creating schools in non-traditional settings. When community sites become destinations for educational field trips and extended academic learning centers, the links between school and community are strengthened. But these extensions are not limited to field trips alone. Through partnerships between school boards and other community organizations, a wide variety of community resources like museums, zoos, parks, hospitals and even government buildings can be enlisted to serve as full-time integrated learning centers. In this way, the school is not only the center of the community, but the whole community can also be seen as the center of the school - school as community and community as school - a learning community.

All of these examples point to ways that schools can better serve as the center of their communities, either by playing a more integral role as a community activity center or by extending the learning environment further out into the community to take better advantage of a wider range of community resources. Schools that are more integrated with their communities in these ways can strengthen a community's sense of identity, coherence and consensus. Like a new version of the old town square, they can serve as a community hub, a center for civic infrastructure, a place where students and others can learn to participate and support the common good.

A national movement integrating schools more closely with the community is growing, with support from the U.S. Department of Education and other organizations. At a recent national conference focused on the design of learning environments, a set of national design principles were identified and adopted. These design principles call for educational facilities and designs that will:

  • Enhance teaching and learning and accommodate the needs of all learners;
  • Serve as centers of community;
  • Result from a planning/design process involving all stakeholders;
  • Provide for health, safety and security;
  • Make effective use of all available resources;
  • Allow for flexibility and adaptability to changing needs.

In addition to the U.S. Department of Education, these design principles have been endorsed by the Council of Educational Facilities Planners International and the American Institute of Architects, which together represent the largest contingent of educational facility planners in the nation.