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The Business of: School Furniture

Innovative designs for tomorrow's learning.
The Bretford furniture company recently released the Library 2.0 line, which includes tables and chairs with power built in, for charging laptops or other devices. For example, the EXPLORE Teaming Table features a monitor on one end to which up to five students can connect their device and share content.

So long, clunky desks. No more one-size fits all. Instead, cumbersome one piece desk-chair combos are slowly disappearing from classrooms. Institutional-style, heavy wooden desks dominated the school furniture scene for most of the past 100 years. However, as instruction shifts to a learner-centric, individualized approach with a focus on small group activities, heavy furniture that small hands cannot move on their own have become less desirable, according to John Musso, executive director for the Association of School Business Offcials (ASBO). 

The most popular pieces are lightweight, portable, and colorful. The Smith System furniture company encourages schools to select chairs and desks in their school colors to boost school spirit, or vary colors based on grade level. 

Sheer variety of choice is also a driving trend. Standing desks are available for students who may work better not seated. Special wheelchair-accessible desks, wheelchair/desk combinations, and height-adjustable science lab tables are adaptable for wheelchair-bound students. And new desks should allow for easy in and out access for students of different sizes, say industry experts. 

Think: Educational Mission

Rick Gay, purchasing manager for Baltimore County (Md.) Public Schools, advises schools to ensure their furniture is conducive to its educational mission. If a school is focused primarily on science, administrators can invest in durable lab tables of different sizes that accommodate various lab experiments. Craig Engerman, director of operations and facility management at Boston (Mass.) Renaissance Charter Public School, notes that even different grades within one school may have different furniture needs.

“Our lower-level students use desks that can connect into circles for group time or can be placed back-to-back to minimize distractions,” says Engerman. “Upper-level students use triangular desks that connect, but also have a convenient spot under the top to store books.”

The triangular desks Engerman refers to are Smith System’s Diamond Open Front Desks. They save space compared to the traditional square desks and come in various colors. They can connect to form compact groups of six, which facilitates collaborative learning.

Maximization of Spaces

Then there is the multi-purpose chair. All Renaissance students use Smith System’s Flavors Chairs, which allow students to sit facing front, left, right, or to the rear while teachers use 360 degrees of their classroom, maximizing small spaces. For example, within one lesson, teachers can teach to the front of the room, direct the class’s attention to a visual in the back, and simultaneously have students turn to the person seated beside them for small group work. Students can face in any direction without moving furniture. And the flexible back provides support no matter which direction the student is seated, promoting correct posture.

For a new K6 building, Engerman’s team spent about $90,000 on the new and necessary furniture. The wealth of furniture choices, he surmises, allows for ease of mobility and student comfort. But it also can be used in whatever format a teacher deems appropriate for the learning activity.

Furniture company Steelcase also offers mobile chairs. With an open seat design, the Node chair’s seat and attached personal workspace swivel easily, making the transition from lecture to group work quick, reducing wasted class time. And students can store big backpacks, which would typically lay in the aisles of classrooms, on the tripod base of the Node, underneath the chair. An optional attached tablet stand adds to the Node’s necessity in the high-tech classroom.

Don’t Forget the Media Center

In addition to classroom desks and chairs, library furniture is also evolving. As the common space is shifting from a place where students work quietly and individually to a collaborative zone intended for group learning and even socializing, small tables or desks are no longer practical. As 1:1 initiatives grow, tech teams need to consider practical issues, such as where students can charge their mobile devices.

The Bretford furniture company recently released the Library 2.0 line, which includes tables and chairs with power built in, for charging laptops or other devices. For example, the EXPLORE Teaming Table features a monitor on one end to which up to five students can connect their device and share content with their peers.

And Spectrum Industries’ eVolve Multi- Tech Cart, which can be used in libraries, can store and charge various devices, from laptops to tablets to smartphones. The modular shelves within the cart can be adjusted at any time to accommodate any device, perfect for a school that may use a mixture of laptops and tablets, but will switch to only tablets in the future.

Cooperatives Reduce Costs

District leaders struggling to integrate new purchases into their budget may want to look to a furniture cooperative. For example, the Wichita (Kan.) Public School District was upgrading old buildings and constructing five new schools from 2009 to 2011 and needed to furnish them. To save money, the district’s purchasing team solicited the furniture company, Virco, through the U.S. Communities Government Purchasing Alliance,according to Darren Muci, division director of operations at Wichita schools. The alliance is a cooperative that reduces the cost of goods and services from highquality national suppliers for districts and other nonprofits by aggregating purchasing power.

Bill Brown, the district’s deputy purchasing manager, estimates the district saved more than $1.7 million in furniture costs. And joining the cooperative allowed Muci and Brown to work closely with the schools’ architects and Virco’s design team members to gain insight on maximizing funds and spaces. “Furniture companies today will come to your school,” says Muci. “They will make sure your purchases will fit in classrooms and guide you through your decision making. At the same time, purchasers need to besure to maintain control so you don’t end up overspending or ending up with items you don’t need.”

Tips to Consider When Purchasing

Among the logistical considerations a business offcer must consider when making a furniture purchase is cost, and it’s usually a top priority, as is space. If a school is simply replacing old furniture, business offcers must work closely with facilities management to ensure new pieces can fit in existing classrooms and can be arranged in an appropriate way, says Muci.

To justify the money spent, purchasers should ensure the furniture they buy is durable. Some companies offer warranties that should also be considered. Virco gives customers a 10-year warranty on all new chairs and desks.

From July 2011 through June 2012, Witchita spent $2.65 million, a worthwhile investment, through their cooperative, Brown says. Muci and Brown note that adults want to work in an open, comfortable, and bright environment — why wouldn’t a student?

“If teachers need to reconfigure a room quickly into a big oval to see all of their students and ensure everyone is focused, they should have the ability to do that,” Brown says.