New school designs don't go by the book

Today's K-12 school buildings need to be vastly different from the outmoded stock they are replacing. School boards, cost-conscious taxpayers, parents, and other interested parties are pushing Building Teams to provide schools with high-performance technology, flexible space for community and student use, and innovative design and construction methods—within a tight budget, of course.
August 11, 2010

America needs more schools. Forty-five percent of the nation's elementary, middle, and high schools were built between 1950 and 1969, according market research firm ZweigWhite, Natick, Mass. Yet even as the stock of K-12 schools ages and declines, school enrollments continue to climb. The National Center for Education Statistics predicts that enrollment in public K-12 schools will keep rising through 2012. As a result, school districts throughout the U.S. are scrambling to build and renovate enough classrooms to meet the needs of a growing student population.

But today's K-12 school buildings need to be vastly different from the outmoded stock they are replacing. School boards, cost-conscious taxpayers, parents, and other interested parties are pushing Building Teams to provide schools with high-performance technology, flexible space for community and student use, and innovative design and construction methods—within a tight budget, of course.

Meeting these goals will not be easy. "Everyone's looking for that magic bullet," said Ellen Savitz, director of development for the School District of Philadelphia. "As a school district, we're always trying to make our new buildings better for students, teachers, and administrators." But, she notes, Philadelphia, like school systems across the country, is trying to find the delicate balance between meeting new and greater demands—smaller classes, better and more technology, high-quality community resources and athletic facilities—in the face of severe constraints.

 
Walker Creek Elementary in North Richland Hills, Texas, shares facilities. It keeps its library, arts center, and almost all of the building (only the classroom wing is locked off) open to the surrounding community after hours.Photo by Blake Marvin, HKS Inc.


"The lack of adequate funding forces us to find ways to be more efficient," said Philadelphia School District CEO Paul Vallas, who previously had served as CEO of Chicago's school district. "Last year, this school district spent less than $9,000 per pupil, in contrast to New York, which spends $14,000. If you're in a large, urban district with all the challenges that come along with it—aging building stock with 20 years of deferred maintenance—that has really forced us to find ways to be more efficient."



Philadelphia is in the process of implementing a $1.5 billion capital program to build 28 new or adaptive-reuse high schools, nearly doubling the number of such schools in the city, by 2008. Each will accommodate 400-800 students. As recently as three years ago, when Vallas became CEO of the district, Philadelphia had only 32 high schools.

Today's school planners and designers are facing that challenge by creating schools that integrate technology so deeply into a school's design that the wired classroom is starting to becoming reality—and where at least one school is teaching without books at all.

They're also saving money by sharing space and facilities that traditionally were kept separate—for example, combining elementary and middle schools.

Finally, today's schools are involving their surrounding communities more than ever, by placing their schools close to community resources and keeping more of their facilities open to the public on weekends and after hours.

1 Putting technology to work

Last February, Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft Corp., told the National Governors Association that the American high school is obsolete. "Training the work force of tomorrow with the high schools of today is like trying to teach kids about today's computers on a 50-year-old mainframe," he said. Gates called for a systematic look at high school effectiveness across the country.

Technology has been changing the classroom for at least the last decade, but the schools that use technology best are integrating design and curriculum to create learning spaces that go far beyond adding hardware and networks, according to Brad Paulsen, leader of Darien, Ill.-based design firm Wight & Company's K-12 education practice.

Building Teams across the nation are already installing technologies like video-conferencing, LCD projectors, WiFi-enabled buildings where all students have laptops, and smart boards—electronic interactive white boards, rather than chalk and slate black boards. But design is only one part of today's wired school. These high-performance buildings demand that administrators rethink the way schools teach and children learn.



 
The Walker Creek Elementary School in North Richland Hills, Texas, uses flexible space, student learning “pods,” and a Cisco Systems wireless network to teach its 700 students. The school is also laid out along a central circulation spine called Main Street.

Photo by Blake Marvin, HKS Inc


Microsoft Corporation has partnered with the Philadelphia School District to create the School of the Future, a 168,000-sf, $63 million project set to open this September in Fairmount Park, near West Philadelphia's Parkside neighborhood.




The school, designed by The Prisco Group of Hopewell, N.J., will have a 500-seat, 8,500-sf state-of-the art auditorium with two smaller, revolving lecture spaces that can open up to create one large auditorium. All three floors of the building will be accessible by a central spine, or "Main Street," from which classrooms, gyms, and cafeteria space will be attached like modular ribs. Seven hundred fifty digitally enabled students will be connected at home and school through wireless broadband. Teachers and administrators will access data through online digital smart boards. Each classroom will have a control box, where teachers can access DVDs, video projectors, and video-conferencing technology.

"We've never put this much high-tech wiring and video-conferencing capability in a school building before," said Frank Goldcamp, project manager for Frazer Comtech of King of Prussia, Pa., the IT subcontractor. "It really is more like a high-end office building job for us."

Construction managers Gilbane Co., Providence, R.I., and Felder & Felder, Philadelphia, are currently working crews in double shifts to finish the project before the scheduled September 4 opening. The project will seek LEED Gold status from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Officially, Philadelphia's School of the Future has no ties to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, although it does borrow from the foundation's approach to smaller schools and integrated technology. While the Philadelphia project places strong emphasis on integrating technology, the school district and Microsoft insist it's the school's methods that will shape the learning curve.

Microsoft Corporation's chief contribution is its organizational practices, which the company has allowed the school district to employ in the project. For example, its 20-25 teachers will be picked based on Microsoft's "competency wheel," a compilation of 38 talents and abilities that presumably will identify teachers who will become "stakeholders" in the school. Back-office functions like procurement and payroll management will be designed to Microsoft's standards.

"It crystallizes where your areas of improvement are," said Mary Cullinane, academic program manager of the project for Microsoft and a former high school teacher herself. "A lot of what we're doing is leveraging some of Microsoft's best business practices. We want this school to be scalable and replicable so other districts can look at it and say, We can do this, too."

Schools CEO Vallas likes the relationship with the Redmond, Wash., firm. "I, personally, like Microsoft's corporate culture, and if they're bringing their practices into our everyday lives in this school district, I say more power to them," he told Building Design & Construction.

To control costs, the building is being constructed largely from standard, relatively low-cost materials, said Richard Seamon, project manager for construction program manager URS Corp. of New York. For example, the building's exterior is all stone block.

Philadelphia's School of the Future is not the only public school to use technology in an innovative way. When Empire High School, in Vail, Ariz., opened last July, students were given an Apple iBook in place of a stack of textbooks.

Calvin Baker, superintendent of the Vail School District (of which Empire is a part), said his curriculum development team visited a number of other schools where each student had a laptop. "It seemed to us a lot of them were still doing business the way it had always been done, but they'd just added laptops." With the current emphasis on meeting minimum test standards for student advancement, he said, "we thought we had to break away from the old habits."

Almost 600 school districts nationwide use laptops, according to the Software & Information Industry Association, but the $12.5 million, 100,500-sf, 700-student Empire High is the only known no-textbook school in the nation.

For the experiment to work, Empire needed ATM-level network reliability and flexible classroom space. The money saved by not building computer labs (and not buying books) went toward the purchase of the iBooks ($850 each). Instead of having one IT manager and a lower-paid assistant, as in all other Vail public schools, Empire High has a manager and three assistants.

Members of the Building Team were quick to point out that some of the features of a wired-for-wireless school actually made it easier to build.

"Our communications consultant put Apple Airport wireless hubs throughout the ceilings in the whole building, which actually reduced the volume of wires," said Phil Swaim, lead architect on the project for Swaim Associates, Tucson, Ariz. "It really opened up flexibility for the design. There are no computer labs, so every classroom was essentially a long room with tables," with comparable technology in each room.

Each classroom has a central core that can be subdivided into four separate sections for team learning or for use by smaller groups of students within the same class.

Schools superintendent Baker said the building still has a library/media center, and some books have also been purchased for supplemental reading for advanced placement classes. But in lieu of a bookstore, the school has technology store that's about the size of a typical Radio Shack outlet.

2 One building for all

Four years ago, Valley View School District 356U in Romeoville, Ill., approached its architect, Wight & Company, about building a new middle school (grades 6-8) and moving a previously designed elementary school to a new site.

"They'd bought some land and wanted to create a campus," said Brad Paulsen, Wight's K-12 team leader. "We came to them with the idea of creating a K-8 learning environment that could fit in the original design of the first building, a connected school concept."

The team from Wight redesigned one side of the elementary school that housed the cafeteria and gymnasium and then designed the new middle school to have its cafeteria and gymnasium on the opposite side. Putting the two buildings together with a shared cafeteria/gymnasium space saved the school district about $500,000, out of a total construction cost of $47.9 million for the combined 261,300-sf school. The elementary school opened last year; the middle school is scheduled to welcome students this August.

The two schools share a kitchen, a delivery area, and a set of coolers, as well as a mechanical plant. The back-to-back gymnasiums have shared locker room facilities.

The school district directed Wight & Company to design the space to minimize contact between the students in the two schools, to minimize conflicts between children of significantly different ages. So, the cafeteria can be used for assemblies and other two-school activities, but it can also be blocked off to one school and open to the other. A shared bus drop-off is the only other place where the paths of students from the two schools intersect.

The concept of shared schools is gaining traction. Wight & Company is currently designing a second shared-space K-8 school in St. Charles, Ill. HMC Architects of Ontario, Calif., has designed its first joint-use for the high-enrollment California market, the Banta Elementary and Middle School in Lathrop, Calif., in the San Joaquin Valley. The two schools will share a gymnasium, library, and multi-purpose room.

"You're going to see a lot more joint-use or shared-use facilities in California in the future, primarily due to economic reasons," said Philip D. Nemeth, AIA, principal-in-charge of the Banta project.

3 Learning on Main Street

The 225,000-sf, $37 million, Robbinsville High School in Trenton, N.J., designed by the Spiezle Group of that city, exemplifies yet another new trend in K-12 schools—the Main Street concept. It is organized around a two-story, skylighted central circulation spine, using the idea of Main Street in a small town or village as a metaphor.

Similarly, the Philadelphia/Microsoft School of the Future follows a Main Street approach, with translucent ceiling panels and Barnes & Noble-like alcoves. Its auditorium, cafeteria, and gymnasium are the only large spaces; otherwise, interchangeable classrooms make up the rest of the turns off Main Street.

"The idea allows for nearly every room in the building to be reached from just one turn off of Main Street," said Joe Joseph, manager of construction services for Philadelphia's schools. "It allows the design to be reused too, in that you can take even the large spaces out and put in something else. We could take that auditorium away and substitute a natatorium or some other space a school might have in the design stage, and not miss a beat."

The 700-student, 86,000-sf Walker Creek Elementary School in the Hometown community of North Richland Hills, Texas, takes the Main Street idea to the extreme.

Hometown is a New Urbanist community with a compact downtown and six-foot-wide sidewalks. Walker Creek Elementary, designed by Dallas-based architecture firm HKS, has one long corridor running the length of the school and flexible-space classrooms and even larger spaces plugged interchangeably on each side of the spine.

Each classroom in the school is set up as a flexible pod with public and private teaming areas. The school itself is situated next to a city performing arts center and a separate city recreation center. The classroom wing is closed after hours, but residents are encouraged to use the other school facilities in off-hours, just as the parents of children at the school are encouraged to take their children to the arts and recreation centers after school.

"The school was built so the community can use it," said Dr. Stephen Waddell, superintendent of the Birdville Independent School District. "The library and community rooms are all up front and are open to learning opportunities for adults after hours, while other parts of the building are secured. A lot of our technology has also been opened up to the community."

"The walls can be removed, the building is adaptable," said Waddell. "It's to be flexible, for people working there today and for people working and learning there 30 years from now. We're planning for the future."