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Classroom Construction Goes Up

Communities use new strategies to build and finance multi-use and convertible designs. SCHOOL BUILDING TRENDS

By Kathleen McCormickSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 5, 1989



WASHINGTON

IT'S like a flashback to the '50s in some communities: Changing demographics, including classrooms brimming with baby boomers' kids, are spurring a school construction rush. But unlike a generation ago, when schools mushroomed quickly and cheaply, school districts now are forced to be more creative in planning and paying for new schools. In the past several years, ``there has been more entrepreneurial spirit in design, construction, and financing of schools,'' says Tony J. Wall, executive director of the Council of Educational Facility Planners, an organization based in Columbus, Ohio. With school construction stakes so high, he says, ``one of the keys for new school buildings is they have to provide options.''

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Nationwide, school construction increased nearly 50 percent between 1982 and '86, according to the United States Census Bureau. Much of the new building is happening in rapidly expanding exurbs, where new residential housing has created the demand for more schools. For example, since 1985, Maryland's Montgomery County school district outside of Washington has built 11 schools, and expects to build 21 more by 1993.

One concept making a comeback in fast-growing communities, where taxpayers are feeling the burden of new schools and services, is joint use of school facilities. In the '60s, as part of the community-schools movement, a few model, joint-use schools dedicated space and shared operating costs with community agencies and social services.

A 1986 report from the National Governors Association Task Force on School Facilities predicted that multiple use of school buildings was the wave of the future. The report noted that 40 states have provisions for interagency sharing of schools. At least one, Florida, offers special incentives: The state pays up to half the cost for schools that will be used by other government agencies, a provision that will defray school building costs by $25 million this year, says H.J. Schroeer, the state's director of educational facilities.

``Joint-use is starting to catch on, now that we're building again,'' says William DeJong, president of Planning Advocates, a school facilities consulting firm in Columbus, Ohio. ``Cooperation among agencies is becoming the norm.''

In Dublin, a suburb of Columbus, and Ohio's fastest-growing school district, the Wyandot Elementary School, one of six schools built since 1982, shares a park and a pool with the city. Land-poor and student-rich, the Los Angeles Unified School District, one of the nation's largest, now has a public library in an elementary school. Still in the concept stage is a joint-use project that would be built by the district, the city housing authority, and a private developer.

Another re-emerging concept is the prototype school - a set of generic architectural plans that can be duplicated to save time and money. New York City is considering several prototype designs for a dozen new schools. In Montgomery County, new schools follow a flexible prototype design in which as many as 30 modular classrooms radiate out from a permanent building core that includes administrative offices, a health suite, a cafeteria, and a gymnasium. The prototype is designed so that, if the portable classrooms are moved to a new site, ``it won't look like you've ripped off pieces of the building,'' says Bill Wilder, director of school facilities.

Typically, school districts plan for three or five years down the road. That's changing, however, as more school districts are creating 10- and even 20-year plans with the help of computer technology. Using census data and demographic information, adjacent districts and schools and city governments are joining forces to map out a master plan.

The Virginia Beach City, Va., public schools, growing at a rate of 2,500 students a year, are working closely with the city's planners on a computer model based on land-development projections, rather than school enrollments and births. In rapidly growing areas, land-based models promise more accurate projections further into the future, says Tom Garrou, planning specialist for the school district. ``The implications are staggering if you make mistakes,'' he says. ``You're talking $25 million for a new high school.''

Nationwide, most of the long-term planning for schools is happening in cities. But ``more and more in the suburbs,'' says Mr. Wall. ``They aren't allowing the big city to control their destiny as much.'' Not all experts agree. For the most part, says K.C. Bibb, a school planning consultant in Colorado Springs, Colo., ``in the suburban and rural areas, [planning is] mostly lip service.''

Mindful of the problems many districts have recycling empty schools, planners are designing schools so they can be used for other purposes. Dublin, Ohio, is building schools that can be converted into office buildings, medical centers, and nursing homes. Six new schools in the planning or construction stages are located near parks, public transportation, and commercial areas. With skylights and stone and wood exteriors, they don't look like conventional school buildings. ``They have esthetic value, and they reflect the character of the neighborhood,'' says Chip Edelsberg, assistant superintendent. The schools have not gone without criticism for their attractiveness, but given their capacity for becoming tax-paying structures, he says, the community ``will appreciate them someday.''

That day may be a few years off. Public school enrollment nationwide is expected to continue increasing, to 41 million by 1992, up from 38.7 million in 1986. The growth is uneven, with some states, such as those in the Midwest, having stable or declining overall enrollments, and others facing serious overcrowding, according to ``Wolves at the Schoolhouse Door: An Investigation of the Condition of Public School Buildings,'' a report released recently in Washington. California, for example, estimates it will need 800 more schools by 1993. And Florida says it will need 816 new schools within 10 years.