The keys to success in the K-12 school market

When educators and school administrators describe their vision for new K-12 school buildings as ‘21st-century learning spaces,’ they’re not exaggerating. Many new schools are truly different in concept from their counterparts of only a few years ago.

Classroom at Ross (Calif.) School with balanced daylighting. School districts ar
Classroom at Ross (Calif.) School with balanced daylighting. School districts are demanding improved acoustics, thermal comfort, indoor environmental quality, flexibility, bigger storage and display areas, and accessible technology. A $1 million FEMA grant was obtained to lift parts of this 380-student, K-8 school out of a flood plain.
September 07, 2012

The new school design mindset among K-12 educators comes largely in response to innovations in instructional ideas and methods. Project-based, interactive learning is gaining more and more adherents, while front-of-the-class lecturing is losing favor. This new approach to instruction benefits from new school design concepts that support small group study and collaboration within the classroom and in common areas.

At the same time, school districts must still comply with state laws and the federal No Child Left Behind program, which requires states to develop annual assessments of basic skills—and which some say leads to homogeneity and “teaching to the test.”

With something like 16,850 public school districts serving 53 million students (and 3.6 million FTE staff) in more than 125,000 school buildings—not to mention private and parochial schools, including two million children and more than 150,000 staff in nearly seven thousand buildings in the Catholic schools alone—how children are taught can vary significantly from community to community. Nationally, school construction in 2012 will reach only half the $20 billion annual average set in the years before the economic recession hit. According to the highly authoritative School Planning & Management “2012 Annual School Construction Report,” total school construction expected to be completed this year will top out at $10.4 billion—$7.3 billion in new construction, $3.1 billion in additions and renovations. 

Because capital expenditure budgets are so tight, school officials everywhere are calling on their Building Teams for guidance in how to build 21st-century learning spaces on extremely limited funds. To get a feel for the situation, we talked to school administrators and AEC professionals whose firms specialize in school design and construction. Here’s what we learned about several critical elements for success in K-12 school projects.

1. Conduct a deep dive on the local educational philosophy and culture.

Your team’s first step must be to make an in-depth assessment of the client community’s educational philosophy. This may seem obvious, but it is a practice more honored in the breach than in the observance, according to school officials. School boards and administrators set the tone, so understanding their vision is crucial to your success.

For example, the more progressive the educational vision, the more likely that school leaders will look for innovative designs. At the other end of the spectrum are school leaders who feel that they must focus on preparing students to score well on standardized tests. “There’s a pretty widespread movement to get out of that rut,” says George Metzger, AIA, Senior Principal with HMFH Architects, Cambridge, Mass. Communities with strong educational leaders are more likely to embrace innovative teaching methods and building designs, he says.

Experienced AEC professionals know that where a community falls on the traditional-vs.-progressive instruction scale can have a huge impact on the design of schools. Many progressive school systems emphasize project-based, interactive learning—an approach that promotes deeper understanding of concepts, more engaged students, and better retention of knowledge. “A teacher might have students view three lectures online at home,” explains Jim French, AIA, REFP, Senior Principal with DLR Group. “Then the teacher facilitates a related activity the next day in a project lab.”

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School designs that foster this approach may provide acoustic dampening and separated areas for group interaction. The ability to reconfigure space with movable walls or partitions (and lightweight furniture on rollers) may also be priorities.

Demographic characteristics can also influence design. For example, at Ft. Huachuca, an Army center for military intelligence in Arizona, many parents have engineering and technology backgrounds, so it’s not surprising that the base’s schools emphasize a STEM-based curriculum (for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). According to Ronda Frueauff, EdD, Superintendent of the Ft. Huachuca Accommodation School District, a new public middle school on base was designed to provide a “project-based, experiential, highly technical learning environment.” She says the community supports that vision by providing students with up-to-date technology and lab equipment.



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