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Building Boom

Districts grappling with overcrowding and looking to implement reform strategies make adequate schoo

Behind the glitz of the Las Vegas Strip is a real problem--one that's far removed from excessive gamblers and sneaky pickpockets but just as frenetic as the crowds of tourists making their way from one casino to the next. For Clark County (Nev.) School District, keeping up with an ever-growing student population is the never-ending challenge.

"Every time a hotel opens, each room creates 3.5 jobs, from grocery clerks to dealers at the casinos. It's the jobs that bring people to Las Vegas," says Dale Scheideman, director of new school and facilities planning for the district. With families come children, and lots of them. Now at about 255,000 students, enrollment is growing at breakneck speed; 12,000 to 14,000 new students per year are typical.

Luckily, the desert provides plenty of land for building. By the time school projects are completed, however, residential and commercial developers have already built up the area with homes and stores. Residents move in and the schools are already open and operating. Then it's on to planning the next school.

While school construction activity elsewhere may not match Clark County's, many districts continue to build schools, even in this down economy. They build because they face severe overcrowding. And they build because their facilities are antiquated.

In general, the stock of school buildings is old, says Michael DeArmond, a research associate for the Center on Reinventing Public Education at University of Washington in Seattle. The structures average 40 years old, which he considers their "shelf life." A 2000 National Center for Education Statistics report revealed that most districts have at least one inadequate building.

"A lot of schools ... were built fast and cheap during the '50s, '60s and '70s, and those buildings are no longer serviceable," says Steven Bingler, principal at Concordia LLC, a New Orleans-based research, planning and architectural design firm.

Building on Reform

Many fast-growing districts are resisting the temptation to slap together large, cookie-cutter buildings. Instead, high-quality, small schools are the rage. "Old practices of consolidation and large schools have been creating large dropout rates, especially for underprivileged children," Bingler says, adding that it takes no longer to build three small schools rather than one large one.

In urban areas, small schools often solve the where-to-build problem. "A number of urban districts are finding it easier to assemble smaller amounts of acreage," Bingler says. "With the economic downturn and a lot of cities moving closer to bankruptcy, people are looking around for more efficient ways to save taxpayer money and smaller schools just may be the answer."

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has invested about $400 million to develop small school models across the country. One model, The Met, has been replicated 12 times; another, High Tech High, is now in 11 districts.

Los Angeles Unified School District is building its own small schools to help remedy overcrowding and bring schools back into neighborhoods.

The 750,000-student enrollment is expected to increase by 40,000 students by the year 2007. With many schools already overcrowded, up to 16,000 students face hour-long bus trips each morning and afternoon. To accommodate the maximum number of students, schools have several different enrollment tracks and are open year-round for just 163 days per student. A two-phase program is building nearly 200 new schools by 2009.

Director of Design Lucy Padilla says the district is designing and building small schools whenever possible. Besides requiring less land, small schools have other advantages. "Because they're smaller, it's easier to control small numbers of kids. ... It's a great philosophy and everyone seems to be very enthusiastic about it."

Her colleague Guy Mehula, deputy chief facilities executive for new construction, says, "Our goal by the end of the second phase is to eliminate mandatory busing and get all students back to a 180-day, nine-month school calendar."

School Pop Ballooning

U.S. public school enrollments rose 20 percent between 1985 and 2001, according to the NCES. Elementary is the fastest growing segment, with enrollment soaring 24 percent during that period, from 27 million to 33.6 million students nationwide. And the situation is not expected to improve.

In a 1999 NCES survey of public schools, 22 percent reported overcrowding, defined as enrolling more than 5 percent above the number of students the school was designed to accommodate. Nearly 10 percent of schools are in dire straits, at more than 25 percent greater than capacity.

Overcrowded districts may need to construct literally hundreds of schools over a relatively short period of time. Most finance building through bonds or more creative measures, like temporary local sales tax increases. Then the issue becomes what to build.

Finely tuned, schools-within-a-school prototype designs are one answer. For Orange County (Fla.) Public Schools, prototypes facilitate the design and construction process of 60 new schools and 121 renovations within a 13-year period. A half-cent sales tax package approved by voters in September 2002 will bring in $2.7 billion for the projects, with additional funding from property taxes and impact fees (assessments made on a developer to recoup long-term expenses such as expansion of roadways). One goal of the district's plan is to greatly reduce the number of portables, currently 3,000, says Chief Facilities Officer Patrick Herron.

"Speed, efficiency and economy come from using prototypes," says Herron. "But ... you need to make certain that it's a well-designed school." The Citizens' Construction Oversight and Value Engineering Committee oversees building projects, including the prototypical design phase. COVE members are community volunteers with expertise in construction, engineering, finance and auditing. Whether it's through a formal committee or simply by inviting public input, experts say a growing number of school boards are working with the community on construction design.

Clark County also relies on prototypes. The current financing plan, which takes advantage of the existing school tax, provides $3.8 billion from 1998 through 2008. Elementary schools have about 62,500 square feet and are built to accommodate 720 students, middle schools have 150,000 square feet for 1,500 students, and high schools have 300,000 square feet for 2,700 students.

Since 1990, the district has had about a dozen elementary, three middle and two high school designs, Scheideman says. "We have some special designs for the rural schools, vocational schools and alternative schools, since their population is generally smaller."

Like other districts, Clark County considers equality among schools as important during construction. For Scheideman, that's meant going back to the older schools and adding new features and amenities. For example, the first new high schools each had a synthetic metric track, and the older schools wanted an equivalent track, so they were added.

New Schools, Same Building

Despite the pressing need to build seats, Clark County and other districts are also using existing buildings to create schools-within-a-school. In Las Vegas, area elementary schools, "pods" can handle about 150 children each. Middle schools keep sixth graders to themselves in areas with their own science and computer rooms, lockers and other classrooms. Its high schools use the academy concept.

Houses, academies or pods can be governed by their own administration and separate from the other sections. Functioning as separate entities, they can still share common spaces such as a gym, cafeteria and auditorium. Districts unable to construct small schools may implement this concept by cordoning off several sections of the school," Bingler says.

In L.A., Padilla is working to re-open one middle school (closed because of a lack of sufficient enrollment) as a high school and a magnet school for business and international trade. "We wanted to incorporate reform ideas and the small schools and schools-within-a-school concepts [are] great," she says.

Feel (and Look) Better, Learn More

No matter what size school is under construction, administrators today are concerned about responding to the environment. "Some facilities, referred to as high performance school buildings, are designed using sustainable strategies to lessen their impact on the environment," says Michael Hall, chief marketing officer of Fanning/Howey Associates, a Celina, Ohio-based educational facilities planning and design firm. Window-heavy buildings maximize daylighting and bring in fresh air, and roof water can be recycled for irrigating sports fields. Some schools are saving 20 percent to 30 percent in operational costs by applying strategies such as these, Hall says.

Seattle architect Daniel Williams believes the challenge is outrageously simple: Design better structures that use less energy and save public funds. "There's a real connection between mental health, environmental health and learning ability," says Williams, who is chairman of the American Institute of Architects' Committee on the Environment. Schools with good light, the correct air temperature and high indoor air quality with natural ventilation promote achievement, he says.

A sensitivity in connecting learning and the learning environment is also driving school construction. "We're seeing more operable walls and things other than the traditional double-loaded corridor with an 850-square foot box," Hall says. "And we're seeing rooms more designed for project-based exploration, rather than regimental 'chalk and talk' [teaching]."

With non-academic spaces, Hall has noticed "more humane recognition of the way kids are. Kids need places to go and places to hang, and they don't like regimented study areas. So we're seeing more informal spaces like that, as well as more student or community commons areas where a lot of different activities occur."

Build or Bust?

Not every district is planning new schools. In fact, a 2002 NCES survey revealed under-enrollment in about 52 percent of schools. But even districts with a waning student population undergo construction.

Enrollment for Portland Public Schools has dropped from 52,091 to 47,140 in the past five years. Last year, one school was closed and another converted for a special education program. This year, the district may close some schools, sell or lease its two administration buildings and move administrators to school sites, says Pamela Brown, director, facilities and asset management.

But Portland's schools are old and deteriorating; their last building boom was in 1955. High schools average 70 years old in Portland, and the city's schools overall average 61 years of age (the national average age for schools is 42 years). "We really need these new buildings, but ... if the voters don't agree, we won't be able to build," Brown says.

To make the issue more palatable, Portland is stressing the community-based schools concept (see sidebar, page 44). Because fewer than 25 percent of local households have children, Brown says that "there really has to be a dual purpose for the school facilities."

With the educational funding well nearly dried up throughout the U.S., some construction vendors are experiencing a dramatic slowdown, despite district needs. "For the previous five years, we were in a tremendous boom for school construction and, over the past year, the proposed cuts in state aid and funding for construction have killed a lot of plans for new school projects," says Carl Stewart, the upstate New York operations manager for Albany-based Turner Construction.

In previous years, his company had between 15 to 20 projects in pre-referendum at any one time in the upstate New York area, but now there's typically only about three. "Construction has come almost to a halt," he says. The number of projects for non-classroom-type projects, like sports facilities and auditoriums, has especially dropped.

Stewart's experiences aren't unique. According to a May study by McGraw Hill Construction, education contracts were down 7 percent in 2002 from 2001. And continued declines in education construction are anticipated during the next five years. However, a high level of activity in this area is still predicted.

Scott Bini, vice president of educational services for URS Corp., in Middletown, N.J., is seeing quite a bit of school construction activity. However, it is mainly due to a state program that's funding new schools in 30 districts with facilities deemed substandard in a 1997 court decision.

Bini sees technology as a general driving factor for construction. "Many of the older buildings aren't adaptable to a lot of the federal and state technology mandates that are put on school districts," he says. "Sometimes, it's just not worth it to try to do the renovation, and better to rebuild."

Meanwhile, additional mandates regulating smaller class sizes will promote future school building, Bini predicts. "If a school needs seven additional classrooms to comply with the mandates, you multiply that across districts and states and you're talking about hundreds of thousands of additional classrooms needed." DA

Peggy Bresnick Kendler is a Monroe, Conn.-based freelance writer.