They used to be called multi-purpose rooms or school auditoriums. But now, some school districts see them as community group centers, theaters or even revenue-generating performance halls.
Ray Bordwell, director of educational facilities consulting for Perkins & Will, a Chicago-based architecture, design and planning firm, has noticed a definite trend toward making schools more usable by more people. "Many communities are looking at other uses for school facilities, particularly theaters, auditoriums and libraries," he says.
Of course, these projects require funds. To get a bond issue approved for new school construction when the majority of its constituents don't have school-age children, administrators can "start offering up a facility that will have amenities to benefit the community," says Bordwell. The facility might include an auditorium large enough to accommodate community theater, for instance. "It becomes a tax issue and not an education issue," he says.
Bordentown (N.J.) Regional School District has been building community-centered school facilities for years, says Superintendent John Polomano. "The school and the community are intrinsically tied together, so the more we can share, the better. It makes no sense to duplicate facilities or charge people rent. We're all on the same tax base and we serve the same public."
At one elementary school, for instance, a single room is used during the day as a cafeteria, auditorium and a gym for students. In the evening, that room is used by the community for a children's basketball league. The high school auditorium is used after school hours for community concerts and other events.
Bordentown has just broken ground on a new $30 million, 190,000-square-foot high school with an auditorium that will have fixed seating for 1,000 people, the approximate high school population. "The entire project was proposed by a citizen's task force that looked at increasing enrollment, and the project's bond referendum passed overwhelmingly," Polomano points out.
Getting an existing auditorium in shape for both school and community events can mean the need for upgrades to sound and lighting systems. For instance, the Flagler Auditorium in Bunnell, Fla., which has been open since 1991 on the campus of Flagler Palm Coast High School, just completed a $250,000 upgrade to remedy problems with intelligibility and the spread of sound. The free-standing building seats up to 1,000 people and includes a large stage, fixed seating and a musician's pit. "We have our normal high school programs--school plays, fashion shows and dance shows--but we also have our professional season," says Bruce Brady, the auditorium's head technician. The facility hosts four Broadway shows a year, plus other musical and theatrical performances.
Paul Chavez, director of systems applications for audio products manufacturer Harman Professional Group, in Northridge, Calif.--which did the Flagler upgrades and also is working on the Bordentown project--says he's seen an overall increase of sensitivity to what good sound is. "People are going to professional sports facilities and theaters and hearing sophisticated sound systems," Chavez notes. "And now, even high schools and colleges are stepping up their level of entertainment value as they become a community resource."
A New Lease On Life
It's not always better to own. In fact, it can be preferable to rent.
In some districts, particularly those with limited financial resources and burgeoning student populations, the idea of leasing buildings for school facilities is being considered as a long-term solution for getting children into a quality educational environment. But these districts aren't simply looking around for vacant buildings to rent and transform into schools. Partnerships--with private developers who construct a new building and then lease it out as a school--are the strategy of choice.
Massachusetts is one state where people are talking about leasing. Last year's declared moratorium on any state-funded school construction projects has left communities, many of which have severely overcrowded classrooms, seeking relief.
"Traditionally ... the state government has funded, through local aid contributions, varying percentages of school construction costs, and that money doesn't exist anymore," says Michael B. Donohue, partner at the Boston law firm Gadsby Hannah LLP.
In November, Gadsby Hannah sponsored a forum on construction procurement and finance with the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research, a Boston-based think tank, to discuss the problem. The idea of leasing buildings instead of building schools was presented as an option for districts to save money.
According to Stephen Adams, president and CEO of the Pioneer Institute, the forum aimed to introduce a construction solution in the context of a challenging budget season. "We're trying to put a new idea on the table, essentially giving schools a way to get the buildings they need constructed in a more efficient, more cost effective way," Adams says.
Attendees of the forum, which was held in Waltham, Mass., ranged from superintendents and principals to state officials and municipal and city managers. Adams says he noticed a lot of support for the leasing option. "The legislators in the room voiced interest in pursuing the idea further, trying to get school buildings built where we need them in the context of no money."
While the leasing model, also referred to as a private-public partnership, isn't currently at work in Massachusetts, some districts elsewhere have used it for their new schools. One such school is the James F. Oyster Bilingual Elementary School in Washington, D.C., which opened in 2001 through a partnership between the district, 21st Century School Fund and LCOR Inc. (a national real estate company specializing in public-private development). The model also is under consideration in some Virginia and New York cities.
In Jersey, It's About Efficiency
Many schools in New Jersey will be built more energy efficiently, thanks to a new program providing guidance to architects and designers. The New Jersey High Performance Schools Information Center was created by the New Jersey Institute of Technology and the New Jersey Schools Construction Corp., a subsidiary of the state's economic development authority. The center is introducing a framework to push many of the state's new and substantially renovated schools toward high performance goals, namely: health and productivity; sustainability; cost effectiveness; educational effectiveness; and being community centered.
The state's 30 Abbott districts--where educationally adequate school facilities must be ensured due to a court ruling--are where the SIC will concentrate most of its efforts. The projects are paid for and controlled by the state, but the districts have some input.
"We want to give the school design teams the freedom to design with their districts the best schools, within some performance parameters, to ensure that the resulting facility is a high-performance, 21st Century school," says SIC Director Deane Evans, who is also executive director of the Center for Architecture and Building Science Research at New Jersey Institute of Technology.
"We're not telling the design teams how to design a classroom to get good daylighting, good visual and thermal comfort--which contribute toward a healthy and productive school--but they have to tell us what they're doing to achieve those things," Evans adds. The center will provide any necessary training and resources to the design teams.
Although the SIC is open and operational, the guidance process is just beginning to unfold as construction projects launch around the state.
Evans says the program may set a national standard for urban high performance schools. There are no specific plans to expand the center on a national scale, but Evans would like to see it become a national resource.
Here Comes The Sun
It's easy to view solar power as an environmental and potential cost-saving issue for schools. But leave it to the Sunshine State to go a step further with a solar power curriculum push.
Through its SunSmart Schools program, Florida is the latest state to help bring solar electric photovoltaic systems to local schools. The program partners districts with electric utilities and corporate sponsors to encourage the installation of PV systems, which convert sunlight directly into electricity. Of the 49 schools that applied, 29 were awarded rebates to help cover conversion costs.
Each system includes a monitoring package for collecting weather and system performance data, which students from any school, anywhere can view live at www.energywhiz.com. The sites have received multi-disciplinary solar education materials that others can access this summer by visiting the Web site of the Florida Solar Energy Center, the University of Central Florida research facility that's administering SunSmart.
Four grade-level units were developed based on state and national standards. "All activities are hands-on, built on investigations, so students learn by doing," says Penny Hall of the FSEC's education department. Students use PV panels, propellers and other materials to explore topics such as solar water heating and cooling and hydrogen collection. "The nice thing is it's not a lecture. ... The kids learn by playing with the stuff," she explains.
But the curriculum has a greater purpose. "This is technology they will use in the future when they become consumers," Hall says. And as energy issues become a greater priority, industry growth will mean a need for workers. Today's students are "going to need the tools and the interest to jump into these types of careers."