Empty classrooms, small class sizes and decreased enrollment may lead community members to conclude that its school facilities are under-used. But how can schools address this concern?

Many factors can help determine efficient classroom use. One important factor relates to changes in education. As educators have learned more about effective teaching, classroom methods have changed. Special education and programs for the gifted have been initiated, and technology has been introduced to each classroom. In addition, class scheduling affects a school's ability to provide learning opportunities for students. All of these things affect room usage and building capacity.

Another factor to be considered in determining efficient room use is how a school calculates student capacity. A school may arrive at an inflated design capacity by multiplying a specific number of students in the classroom with the number of classrooms in the building. This method makes an assumption that all classrooms are occupied fully every hour. If this were true, the classrooms would have a 100 percent rate for room use, and that is an unrealistic student occupancy figure.

Schools must analyze classroom use and student occupancy to efficiently use buildings for staffing purposes and to project operational and maintenance costs; therefore, calculations should be based on a study of the master schedule to determine the number of periods per day. The traditional scheduling standard was based on allowing one period per day of each classroom to be used as a teacher-prep space and not as a classroom. This resulted in an 83 to 87 percent utilization factor of the room, depending on the number of periods per day. Changes in educational delivery methods have made this calculation even more complex.

Pinpointing variables

Scheduling modifications can affect room use. Block scheduling, for example, often leaves a room unoccupied for part of the day, which contributes to lower classroom utilization. Some planners have recommended a 75 percent utilization factor, while others have recommended an 85 percent utilization factor to determine the capacity for a school operating on block scheduling. To make classroom use more efficient, teacher offices sometimes are provided to allow classrooms to be scheduled at closer to 100 percent efficiency. Scheduling modifications should be flexible in order to accommodate student and teacher scheduling conflicts and curriculum enhancement.

The variable with the biggest impact on student capacity is class size. The number of students scheduled in each classroom can vary greatly depending on curriculum and program-delivery methods. Capacity is influenced further by the fact that enrollment fluctuates during the day and during the lifetime of a building. For example, a high school completed in 1997 for 3,000 students now has experienced an enrollment decrease, and classrooms stand empty for several periods per day. However, within five years, enrollment will rebound, and the school will utilize the classrooms again. Table 2 indicates lower room utilization because classrooms stand empty during several periods, but maintain a high occupancy average when used. When class size is taken into consideration, the analysis is based on student occupancy per classroom.

The high school in Table 1 varies the maximum class size from 16 to 33 students for the same classrooms throughout the day, depending on the subject being taught. For example, a home-economics classroom used for a child growth and development class has a maximum class size of 30. The same classroom used for an early-childhood class has a maximum class size of 16. A math classroom may have a 25-student maximum one period, while the next math class in that room may have 32 students. Occupancy rates vary for other reasons, such as students traveling off-site for specialized learning, work-training programs and alternative education. Table 2 shows an example of how these variables can affect classroom use.