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Rightsizing Your School District

February 15, 2023 by Jody Andres AIA LEED AP in School Business Affairs

This article originally appeared in the February 2023 School Business Affairs magazine and is posted with permission of the Association of School Business Official Association (ASBO). The text herein does not necessarily represent the views or policies of ASBO International, and use of this imprint does not imply any endorsement or recognition by ASBO International and its officers or affiliates. 

Educational models change, and the spaces that house learning activities need to respond to those changes. The one-size-fits-all mentality of the factory school model does not support the focus of today's education: communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity. Our challenge is to provide the proper space to facilitate this culture.

Changing Models and Mindsets
Facility planners strive to provide classrooms that will address the needs of various teaching (and thus learning) styles. The current emphasis on more active learning requires spaces that are larger than traditional classrooms to allow for a variety of learning configurations, technology use, and more.

Additionally, schools focused on improving mental health recognize that the size of the classrooms, corridors, and common spaces affects the students and staff who are struggling--cramped and noisy students learning and gathering areas escalate the potential for negative incidents. Light, open classrooms and hallways, as well as regulation stations within the classroom to promote sensory relaxation and incident de-escalation contribute to healthier learning environments. 

What Size School?
Determining the appropriate school building size has long been a challenge for school districts. How big is too big for a high school? When should districts consider expanding on or building another school? The same type of challenge applies when considering whether a school district or school building should be smaller.

When faced with declining enrollment and a dwindling budget, district leaders must consider consolidating, closing, and remodeling schools. Maintaining space that is not used or is underutilized, providing heating and cooling, and duplicating services at separate locations can be costly and wasteful. 

A critical aspect of facility planning is the district's vision for class sizes. Research offers differing opinions regarding the size of classes, but typically parents, teachers, and researchers believe that smaller class sizes are important for younger students and students with special needs.

Ultimately, schools can be big but still feel small. We have seen remarkable success in breaking up single buildings into separate individual "schools" or giving grade levels unique identities. The real focus should be on having the suitable size spaces available for a variety of learning needs and instructional strategies. 

A Prime Example
A good example of rightsizing can be found in Manawa, Wisconsin. The School District of Manawa had a junior/senior high and an elementary school until 1994, when the community approved expanding to a third location for middle school students. Sixteen years later, due to declining enrollment, the district closed the elementary building, moved those students into the middle school, and moved seventh and eighth graders to the high school.

The old elementary remained abandoned on the campus for eight years until the school district conducted a comprehensive district-wide facilities feasibility study. New district leadership identified the abandoned school as a prominent reminder to the community of the difficulties the district faced.

The work that came out of the study included the creation of a true middle school within Little Wolf Jr./Sr. High School, a new high school administration area, and a new two-story fitness center to serve students, staff, and community members. 

The new middle school space within the existing high school allowed students to have more resources and staff available for their needs. Additionally, the district demolished the old elementary building, enabling the community to move forward with schools that responded to the community's needs and size. 

Flexibility Is Our Friend
Smaller districts and schools have a much more challenging time adjusting to changes in enrollment. However, this can be managed with good planning and flexible facility design.

Flexibility in space and furniture enables teachers to create diverse activity areas, create a variety of groupings, and establish a shared learning platform among students. More and more, best practices provide for learning spaces that are easily configured and reconfigured to support unique and changing educational needs. 

For example, science labs traditionally consisted of fixed lab tables, often situated with islands and a separate area for desks. Today, schools frequently arrange a smaller amount of fixed casework along the walls, including stations with sinks and gas hook-ups. Adjustable-height mobile tables--which can be wheeled to stations--allow for disparate lab experiments or can be arranged for Socratic discussions or presentations. Gas and power can even be supplied in a way to move and change with different room arrangements. 

Creating flexible space that is conducive to collaborative work is vital as well. Wedge-shaped desks can be grouped in various ways depending on the class size, but also can be separated for individual work. Writable wall surfaces that contribute to project collaboration and brainstorming are also in high demand. Furniture with flexibility empowers teachers to alter the arrangement, create diverse activity areas, and also provide for groups of varied sizes.

Date, Vision, and Student Success
At the end of the day, educational leaders must look at the data for their district to make sound facility decisions. Enrollment and population trends tell a story and can provide information essential to the process of arriving at informed conclusions. Then, with student success and the production of a splendid work environment in mind, a vision can be created and cast.

Rightsizing our schools is important to students, teachers, and our communities, and it is up to us to be good stewards both academically and financially. 

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