In the depths of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, to say that "times are tough" is an understatement. And in tough times, it is only natural for school administrators, boards of education and taxpayers to hunker down and wait it out. Yet, if school administrators have learned anything from the recession of the 1980s, it is that waiting it out results in deferred maintenance, and decisionmaking based on quantity rather than quality results in low-quality school design and construction that shortchanges students, teachers and communities.

Visionary education leaders have learned the lessons of the 1980s and, despite the existing economic climate, many are bringing about positive change in their communities. They are using timeless principles—vision, leadership and an effective process—to move forward with realistic, value-driven solutions.

Proven processes

School leaders who are moving forward with high-priority school facilities projects possess confidence as the essence of their leadership—a commitment to develop and carry out a master facilities plan.

For example, a superintendent in the Midwest had a multi-million-dollar capital-improvement plan. When the financial crisis hit, he and the district’s other top leaders re-examined the plan, yet they continued to move forward with the high-priority projects. They believe that if leaders abandon the district’s plan for capital improvements, it will diminish the community’s confidence in the quality of their children’s education. Even in tough times, it is important to continue to make progress on the goals of a master plan. Engage the community in the planning process to set priorities, and use cash reserves to pay for improvements.

Even in institutions that are not engaged in design or construction of a project, strong leaders are engaged in developing or revising a long-range (10- to 15-year) master plan. A detailed master plan typically includes a range of projects, from realignment of facilities to support new educational programs to facilities upgrades and major maintenance projects, such as installation of air conditioning or new roofs. When beginning to consider specific steps, frame priorities within a three- to six-year timeframe.

An up-to-date, detailed master plan provides a foundation for a clear vision—the ability to define the educational outcomes each project is expected to achieve; to set priorities according to immediate, mid-range and long-term objectives; and to communicate the value in a way that wins support.

Finally, these leaders employ a proven process to get the job done. They seek to develop cost-effective, value-driven solutions for each project in the master plan. Moreover, they engage strong allies to gain the community support and financing necessary to bring these plans to fruition.

Real solutions

Leading institutions have made a shift from the cost-based, quantity-driven decisionmaking of the 1980s to an approach that focuses on real value. They are using high-quality design and thoughtful application of high-quality materials to create exciting, flexible, sustainable learning spaces, and reinforce their "brand" among students and the community. They are taking cues from successful strategies employed in higher education—and even retailers—to attract and retain students, and adapting these to make them age-appropriate for students and cost-effective for their communities.

Often, their high-priority projects focus on enhancing spaces that are seen and shared by the public, such as cafeterias, auditoriums, library/information centers, gyms and Main Street corridors. A few examples:

-Rivaling borders. How does an institution lure its students back from the strongly branded bookstores and cafes that offer attractive places to read, study and sip a beverage (Borders or Starbucks or whatever is today’s coolest hangout)—plus offer wireless Internet access? By treating students like the consumers they are.

Today’s school library is more than a set of stacks and study carrels. It incorporates a variety of spaces that enable individual students and small groups to read, study and do Internet research using school computers or their own wireless laptops. Natural lighting, a few cafe tables and access to age-appropriate light refreshments encourage them to linger.

Of course, an effective layout separates quiet areas from those in which quiet conversations are encouraged, and ensures that students are supervised appropriately by library staff. Even some inner-city schools, which often perceive such models as "risky" compared with a traditional library, are using this model successfully.

-Destination dining. The school cafetorium was developed in the early 1990s, so it is nothing new. But this model has evolved into a lively food court with greater potential for a variety of uses by school staff and the community. Today’s cafetoriums include storage space for platforms and other equipment used in performances and assemblies. They include small rooms along the perimeter with pull-down screens and projectors, which can serve as staff dining rooms or meeting rooms during the day and as community meeting rooms in the evening.

Kitchens are zoned to isolate the heavy-equipment and food-prep areas from the front of the house, which offers access to microwave ovens, ice machines, beverage cooler, coffee and tea makers, etc., to serve students and those who are using the performance/assembly space or meeting rooms.

Functional, durable, attractive finishes and furnishings, a sound system, and a range of lighting—from daylight to performance lighting to neon accents—makes the space attractive to a wide range of users. The use of bold graphics and color brands the cafetorium as a unique school and community space.

-The school "Y." In the 1980s, many school districts skimped on the size of their gyms to save money. Today, they view the gym as a true hybrid recreation/physical education/assembly space, and the associated fitness facilities as a draw for students and the community. Today’s gyms are being sized for the existing population and future projections (based on the master plan). They are designed so that they can be used for graduation and divided into multiple sections for daily use. The larger sizing also accommodates running tracks, either hanging or at floor level.

More institutions also are taking cues from the community, and including features and amenities that parents might otherwise pay for in a membership at the local YMCA or another sports club. For example, one elementary school in a moderate-income community included fitness rooms with glass walls.

-Main Street. In many school facilities, the traditional entrance lobby is being transformed into a wide Main Street corridor, which serves not only as a circulation route, but also as a space for learning outside the classroom, supervised interaction and community participation.

Designed at a scale appropriate to the age level, these spaces may incorporate high ceilings, natural light and museum-style lighting for student art exhibits—even digital wallpaper. The prudent use of high-quality materials such as stone and terrazzo in public spaces where they have the highest impact delivers the best value for every dollar.

-LEED principles. Even in difficult times, school leaders see the value of teachable moments about environmental sustainability. They may not be spending millions of dollars on high-tech sustainable systems, such as geothermal heating and cooling systems. However, they are using practical, economical and educational examples of sustainability, including use of local building materials; native plant gardens; photovoltaic or low-voltage landscape lighting; rainwater-collection barrels; and recycling centers.

Young is president and CEO of Wm. B. Ittner, Inc., Architects, St. Louis, an educational facilities planning and design firm with a 100-year history. dennisy@ittnerarchitects.com.

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