The ABC's of K-12

With state and local school districts facing extreme budget constraints, public schools are learning to adapt to a new environment

June 01, 2003 |

Although enrollments in U.S. elementary and secondary schools are expected to grow only modestly — or in some regions even to decline — over the near term, the education sector remains one of the steadiest nonresidential building markets, second only to healthcare.

But funding constraints, changing parental demands, and other social, cultural, and economic forces are compelling school officials and parents to look at public schools — and their design — differently than in the past.

A close look at the K-12 market reveals seven new themes that are scrambling the ABC's of public school financing, construction, and design.

Good-bye to middle schools

The concept of the middle school — those Grades 6-8 facilities that educators pushed for in decades past — is under siege. New Haven, Conn., will virtually eliminate middle schools and return to a more traditional K-8 elementary, 9-12 high school format — with significant consequences for the schools' physical structure. Educators there believe the realignment will improve student achievement and parental participation.

The New Haven construction program, which is being managed by Gilbane Building Co., Providence, R.I., takes in six new buildings and 37 renovations; only two middle schools will be retained. Eleven projects, encompassing 837,000 sq. ft. of renovation and 521,000 sq. ft. of new construction (total value: $316 million), have been completed, at an average construction cost of $170 per sq. ft. Nine projects valued at $300 million are under construction, and another 25 are in design or planning.

Newark, N.J., and Buffalo, N.Y., are also abandoning junior high-type facilities and reverting to K-8, says David Hingston, associate principal with Princeton, N.J.-based architect Hillier, which has been doing long-range planning for these districts.

The objective is to phase out schools with big enrollments of 1,000-1,200 students serving only 12-14 year-olds, in favor of smaller, more numerous neighborhood schools serving a wider age range.

But K-8 is not the only scheme that is being experimented with. Michael Hall, a principal with Fanning/Howey Architects, Celina, Ohio, has observed a movement toward K-4 schools. "I think both approaches have a lot of physiological, psychological, and educational validity," he says.

It used to be that elementary schools were always K-5, middle schools 6-8, and high schools 9-12, but "that's all up in the air now," says Hall. "A lot of these decisions are driven by a district's existing facilities. For example, he asks, can a K-8 school meet the needs of upper elementary students, who may require larger locker rooms if the school has an intramural sports program?

"Freshman centers" — designed exclusively for ninth graders — are another variation upon the theme of innovative grade levels, says Hall, whose firm designs about 100 schools a year. Fanning/Howey has completed freshman centers in Warsaw and Zionsville, Ind.

In some cases, structural change is being forced upon school districts by outside agents. In South Bend, Ind., the grade structure will be revamped this fall due to a U.S. Justice Department's ruling, which terminated a 1981 consent decree charging that the district's distribution of students was racially unbalanced. South Bend will transition from 23 K-6 schools to 18 K-4 facilities, and from five 7-8 intermediate schools to 10 5-8 grade intermediate schools. The number of high schools will be reduced from five to four.

The issue of which grade levels to combine can be a touchy matter in some school districts. Five years ago, a district in Michigan tried to convert its elementary schools to K-3 facilities, combine grades 4-6, and assign 7-8 graders to a middle school. The district had never lost a bond vote — until this plan was announced. A heavy turnout of fourth-grade parents who didn't want their children mixed with fifth and sixth graders killed the referendum. The district has now been restructured as a K-4 elementary, 5-6 "upper elementary" system.

Going deepto find energy

In a quest to reduce energy costs, some schools are turning to geothermal heating and cooling systems. At the 405,000-sq.-ft. Fond du Lac (Wis.) High School, heating and cooling are provided by a geothermal heat pump system using water drawn from two six-acre ponds on the school's 122-acre site. The 20-foot-deep retention ponds were required by Wisconsin groundwater runoff regulations, says Stephen Kuhnen, project designer with the school's architect, Bray Associates Architects, Sheboygan, Wis.

A fluid-filled 4.1-mile heat exchanger consisting of 720 coils sits on the bottom of the ponds. The loop moves heat from the ponds into the building during the heating season, and from the building back into the ponds during cooling season. The ponds normally deliver 39 F water in winter and 65 F water in summer.

A more conventional groundwater geothermal system would have required the drilling of about 100 wells, at a cost of about $1 million. The system, which has a heating and cooling capacity of 700 tons, incorporates 179 water-to-air heat pumps in the classrooms. System costs of $12 per sq. ft. included $5.2 million for indoor HVAC equipment and $465,000 for the pond loop.

Four hundred miles south of Fond du Lac, the Tri-C Elementary School in Carterville, Ill., is reportedly the first new school in Illinois to utilize a closed-loop groundwater geothermal system. The 76,000 sq.-ft., 35-room school is conditioned with water drawn from 128 wells that are 200 ft. deep, and 60 heat pumps. Clark Engineers of Peoria, Ill., was the mechanical engineer.

Scot Fairfield, a vice president with the school's architect, FGM Architects Engineers of Oak Brook, Ill., says the geothermal system cost $12.55 per sq. ft., compared to about $15 per sq. ft. for a standard boiler and chiller installation.

"We were surprised to see it come in so economically," says Fairfield. Due to the relatively mild southern Illinois climate, the school does not have supplemental heating.

Not everyone is sold on geothermal, though. Fanning/Howey's Hall says he has doubts about the life expectancy and replacement cost of system components and wonders if geothermal systems will return a long-term positive payback.

Healthier classrooms

Mold, allergies, and the alarming rate of asthma among schoolchildren are red flags calling attention to indoor air quality. IAQ is "very definitely" impacting school design, according to Hillier's David Hingston. "It used to be that opening the windows and turning on the radiators were essentially the only methods of controlling the classroom climate," he says.

A U.S. Department of Energy study indicated that 20% of schools have poor indoor air quality and 36% have "less than adequate" HVAC systems. Another DOE study, covering 10 schools in Georgia, determined that some of them had relative humidity levels that at times exceeded 70% and ventilation rates as low as 5 cfm per student.

Hillier is investigating the use of raised floors for two planned schools, which Hingston says would help to improve IAQ, as well as make it easier to get to underfloor cabling. A similar approach has been used on additions to five Detroit schools.

In New Jersey, new schools must be designed such that they will be capable of achieving at least 26 points on the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environment 69-point LEED rating scale.

"My concern is that so many — particularly urban — districts are in such dire [financial] straits that LEED looks like a frill to them," says Hingston. "Anything other than first cost and simply getting more seats, or even decent seats, looks like something they can't justify."

To overcome skepticism of this kind by school boards and taxpayers, Fanning/Howey's Michael Hall distributes information about reports from the National Clearinghouse on Educational Facilities citing research that poor IAQ increases student absenteeism. The studies also show that a temperature range of 68-74 F and a relative humidity of 40-70% are required for effective learning. Hall says this kind of hard data has been effective in getting approval for more-ambitious school designs.

Clearview Elementary School in Hanover, Pa., designed by L. Robert Kimball & Associates of Harrisburg, is that state's first school designed to meet LEED certification. This was accomplished in part by using insulating forms to build its concrete exterior walls. These walls consist of 6 in. of concrete encapsulated within 21/2 in.-thicknesses of expanded polystyrene that functions both as formwork and insulation barrier. The insulating value of the concrete alone, not including exterior and interior wall materials, is R-22, according to Vera Novak, environmental specialist with ECO-Block, the Salt Lake City-based manufacturer of the forms. She says the monolithically poured walls reduce air-intrusion points essentially to window and door openings, thereby achieving an air-change rate per hour of only 0.1 (a comparable rate for residential buildings is 0.5).

Daylighting as a factor that impacts learning is also a growing concern for many school districts. A study for Pacific Gas and Electric Co. by consultant Heschong-Malone Group, Sacramento, Calif., indicated a 10-20% increase in test performance when students were exposed to daylight. The Capistrano (Calif.) Unified School District has built 11 schools with skylights, both to reduce energy consumption and in response to complaints of "classroom claustrophobia" by students in older buildings.

New technology initiatives

Teachers at Ocoee (Fla.) Middle School wear wireless microphones and transmitters, enabling ceiling-mounted speakers to amplify their voices by 10 decibels above classroom noise levels.

"We always thought that lighting was the biggest issue, but in the last few years we're finding that acoustics play an even larger role," says Fanning/Howe's Michael Hall. Audio enhancement "is a way to overcome acoustical problems that cannot be solved architecturally."

Ocoee was one of four U.S. pilot sites for the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF), a division of the Washington, D.C.-based Software and Information Industry Association. SIF's "open" specification is intended to promote the interoperability of instructional and administrative software used by elementary and high schools.

Students at Ocoee receive encoded ID cards that not only provide access to the building, but also identify students who are entitled to free or discount lunches in the school cafeteria. The card works like a debit card, deducting the cost of a lunch from the student's food service account. At enrollment time, the cards allow student information to be transferred to various applications from a single entry. The system also can be programmed to maintain attendance records, although Ocoee is not currently using it for this purpose.

Building for many users

Schools today are being called upon to perform more and more functions besides serving as educational institutions. Multi-use for schools is a concept that "seems to have real traction at the local level," according to Hillier's David Hingston.

For example, a school project may spur an interest in a new youth club or health clinic that the community needs but fears it can't afford. In this manner, new schools may provide an opportunity to leverage school funding for the benefit of a broader section of the community.

In North Aurora, Ill., the park district and a local university participated in the initial planning for the Harold G. Fern Elementary School. As a result of this cooperative effort, Chicago-based architect Perkins & Will designed the school with an entrance that allows persons using adjacent park district property to use the school's toilet facilities. Aurora University funded a classroom for student teachers that is adjacent to the school's faculty room, thereby promoting relationships between the Fern staff and the Aurora student teachers.

Tapping non-traditional funds

Faced with a reduction in state and local funding, school districts are becoming more creative in developing alternate sources. New Haven, Conn., raised $23 million for schools by selling tax-delinquent properties to a private developer, thus enabling a construction program valued in the hundreds of millions to be launched with no immediate impact on taxpayers.

A public/private venture resulted in the construction of the James F. Oyster Bilingual Elementary School, the first new public school to be built in the District of Columbia in 20 years. An existing school on the site was razed, and a portion of the site was traded to Berwyn, Pa.-based developer LCOR. In return, LCOR built the new 47,000-sq.-ft. school and an adjoining 211-unit apartment complex on the property. The school's construction cost was underwritten by an $11 million, 35-year tax-exempt bond package issued by the school district and will be repaid from revenue generated by the apartment building.

Another fund-raising innovation is the Private Finance Initiative, according to the San Francisco-based architectural firm Gensler, which has performed several PFI-type projects in the United Kingdom. With PFIs, the school district focuses on the support and services it requires from its new or renovated facilities, while the private sector delivers the needed facilities and services over an extended period, usually 30 years.

Niagara Falls (N.Y.) High School was among the first U.S. schools to utilize this development approach (BD&C, May 2001). Completed in 2000, the school is being leased from a private corporation for 30 years, at the end of which the school district can buy the building for a dollar.

In Canada, Nova Scotia began using a PFI-like approach to school construction and operation in 1997 and has developed more than 30 projects in this manner. There, municipalities develop the plans; providers contract to build the schools, then lease them back for 20-30 years for payments that total 85% of their capitalized cost. The remaining 15% plus profits is derived from renting the schools for other uses during off-hours.

The state of Virginia recently passed enabling legislation that will allow a developer to build and initially own a school building. And under a new Federal law, private companies can finance public schools at the tax-free rate, which can reduce interest costs by 30%.

Schools have a potential source of funds for telecommunications services and technology improvements as a result of the Universal Service Fund established by the 1996 Telecommunications Act. The law directed the Federal Communications Commission to establish a $2.25 billion program that provides discounts of 20-90% for all telecom services that come into a facility. The discounts relate to the number of students entitled to receive subsidized lunches, according to William Hayes, president of Thomas Communications and Technology, Ithaca, N.Y., which helps schools apply to the program.

Discounts also are available for cabling, network electronics, and phone equipment. A $42 million technology upgrade for schools in Buffalo, N.Y., received $10.8 million in discounts. The program is funded by surcharges on telephone bills. More info.:

Reducing class size

Florida voters approved a ballot measure last November requiring that, by 2010, the number of students per classroom in grades 4-8 be capped at 22, and in high school classrooms at 25. Until then, the state has been directed to provide funds to allow districts to reduce the average number of students in each classroom by two.

From a design perspective, mandating fewer students per classroom does not necessarily translate into commensurately smaller rooms, says Hingston. The whole range of classroom activities — for example, computer training, not just the usual deskwork — must be considered in determining classroom size, he says.

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