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New School Concepts Produce Building Prospects

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When the Wynn Resort opened on the Las Vegas strip in 2005, it had a tremendous impact on the demand for classrooms in Clark County. Every one of those 2,698 hotel rooms created 3.5 new jobs, from blackjack dealers to clerks at the local supermarket. Jobs are bringing people to Las Vegas in droves, making it one of the fastest growing cities in the United States. With these job seekers come children-lots of them. Currently student enrollment is about 255,000 and is increasing at a rate of 12,000 to 14,000 students a year.

Tremendous population growth in areas such as Las Vegas; loss of population due to suburban migration in cities such as Portland, OR; and the need to replace buildings that are no longer functional are factors that are creating new markets for architects and builders. Photos courtesy Andersen Windows Inc., Bayport, MN.


While Clark County’s enrollment growth is atypical, many school districts across the country are faced with a growing enrollment. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), Washington, U.S. public school enrollment rose 20% between 1985 and 2001. The fastest growing segment is elementary schools. During that period, elementary enrollment soared from 27 million to 33.6 million students, a 24% increase.


This growth in student enrollment is overcrowding many schools. Another NCES survey found that 22% of the nation’s public schools were overcrowded. Overcrowding is defined as having a student population that exceeds a building’s capacity by at least 5%. Nearly 10% of the nation’s schools are operating at 125% of capacity.


However, not every school is overcrowded. According to NCES, about 52% of the nation’s schools are under-enrolled. In Portland, OR, enrollment has dropped from 52,091 to 47,140 during the past five years due to an ongoing migration to suburbia. Only one in four Portland city households have children. In 2005, one school was converted to a special-education-program facility and another was closed. In 2006, the district is considering closing more schools, selling or leasing its two administration buildings, and moving administrators to school sites.


Even with declining enrollment, districts such as Portland need to replace antiquated facilities. The average Portland school building is 61 years old. The city’s high schools are an amazing 70 years old.


Nationally, the average school building is 42 years old. During the 50s, 60s, and 70s, schools were built as quickly and cheaply as possible to meet the needs of baby boomers. Most of those buildings are no longer serviceable. The NCES reports that most U.S. school districts have at least one inadequate building. New Jersey, for example, is funding new schools in 30 districts with facilities deemed substandard in a 1997 court decision.


All of this comes at a time when districts need to improve test scores, increase accountability, control energy costs, and work with reduced operating and capital budgets. Most districts finance construction through bonds or more creative methods, such as temporarily increasing the local sales tax. No matter what the funding method, new-school construction only happens if the district’s voters approve the new construction. Hence, the aging buildings.


One bright spot is that many of the fast-growing districts are resisting the temptation to slap together large, cookie-cutter schools. Instead, they are building smaller, higher-quality schools. From a timing standpoint it takes no longer to build three small schools than it does one large school. Also, small schools can solve the where-to-build problem, especially in cash-strapped urban areas where it is easier and less expensive to locate smaller amounts of land.


The small-school model also costs less per student and yields better results. Outcomes from a project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Seattle, show the annual cost per student is 16.8% less than other schools in the same school districts. Additionally, almost every graduate to date has been accepted by a college.


The project began in 1999, when The Big Picture Co., Providence, RI, received a grant from the foundation to help create 12 small urban high schools across the country. In 2003, it provided additional funding for 44 more schools. Currently, 34 schools have been built, including the six schools that make up the Met Center in Providence, RI. Four more are scheduled to open in the 2006-2007 school year.


The need for more seats is causing many school districts to re-task existing buildings. Los Angeles is working to re-open one middle school, that was closed because of insufficient enrollment, as a high school and a magnet school for business and international trade. Districts are creating schools-within-a-school by cordoning off sections of existing buildings. These houses, academies, or pods, function as separate entities, with their own administration, while sharing common spaces such as a gym, cafeteria, and auditorium.


Another idea taking hold is the community-based school. Under this concept, schools are built for joint use, thereby eliminating the costly duplication of facilities by combining elements such as a school and public library or recreation facility. Health centers and career centers can be located on school sites, as well as various types of social and family centers. Athletic fields can be opened for public use during non-school hours and on weekends.


It’s worth noting that these new or repurposed buildings cannot be built with conventional construction methods. Growing public awareness about the environment is putting pressure on administrators to incorporate “green” in all school buildings. As a result, many districts are turning to a concept called the high-performance school when building or renovating facilities. This trend has been fueled by a growing body of research showing that schools built or renovated according to those design principles have lower energy costs (30% to 40%) and the students who occupy them have better test scores (10% to 20%) when compared with traditional schools. Currently, the design and construction guidelines developed by the Collaborative for High Performance Schools, San Francisco, is the de facto standard for this type of educational facility.


What does all of this mean for the architect and builder? Opportunity. Whether the districts in the area you serve are growing and building or shrinking and trying to get some use/value out of unneeded buildings, you can help. Discuss with officials the value of “green” building techniques and how they can provide long-term benefits to the district’s coffers and to student performance. Demonstrate how buildings can be designed and used for much more than nine months of basic instruction. Help school districts with limited land get maximum use from that land. Show administrators in shrinking districts how to make abandoned buildings come alive again instead of being subjected to the wrecking ball. By being proactive, you can generate new business and help taxpayers feel better about how tax dollars are being used.