August 28, 2008

Can good design boost the case for school consolidation?

  • Merged schools can benefit from improved curriculum, more-effective spending


    School consolidation is a controversial issue that has been debated across the United States for years.

    While years of research and studies have shown there are just as many supporters as detractors, there is one area of the argument that has been neglected: Can creative school design improve the negatives and further the positives of school consolidation?

    School consolidation is the practice of combining two or more schools for educational or economic benefits. According to Erik Nelson, writing in the ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management, a consolidated school “offers an expanded curriculum and a more prominent identity in the community while reducing costs through economy of scale.”

    Bigger can be better

    Consolidation of schools has both educational and financial advantages. First, it often enables the consolidated schools to share courses and facilities. Sharing results in a more varied curriculum because fewer classes are dropped due to low enrollment. Expenditures for capital improvements and basic maintenance are reduced because there is no need to upgrade or maintain duplicate facilities.

    Photos by Dan Tyrpak
    The Highline School District, faced with tight budgets and shrinking enrollment, built Bow Lake Elementary to combine two smaller schools.

    Economy of scale weighs heavily in favor for consolidation. According to a 1978 study, operating costs increased when the number of students served was less than the maximum allowed by the design of the building.

    Declining enrollment rates raise operating costs exponentially, while consolidation between two schools not only reduces expenditures by one facility, the cost per student drops while maintaining the same quality of education. In addition, because consolidation often combines classes and increases their size, fewer teachers need to be employed. Consolidated schools also realize a financial benefit because they need less administrative staff.

    Consolidation of schools also can produce psychological benefits. When combined, schools often gain a confidence and an identity in the community they did not previously possess. In addition, sports programs and extracurricular activities thrive in consolidated schools because of combined funding.

    Small-school advantages

    Bow Lake is divided into five personalized learning communities, with a distinct identity for each “neighborhood.”

    Some educators stress the benefits of small schools and question the effectiveness of school consolidation.

    Small schools are able to perform functions that are impossible in larger schools. Small schools usually provide closer relations between faculty and administration, a smaller teacher-student ratio and greater potential for individualized instruction.

    It has been noted that higher classroom ratios lead to greater tension between the students and teachers due to less human contact. This breeds frustration, alienation and weakening morale of both students and staff. Also, it’s been found that more time, effort and money are devoted to discipline problems in larger schools.

    Consolidation often results in additional costs for capital expenses due to the need for larger facilities, and maintenance of these buildings can be far costlier than operating two schools below capacity.

    Local example

    Highline School District was facing tight budgets and shrinking enrollment, leading to the decision to combine Valley View Elementary and Bow Lake Elementary.

    Each school represented a unique student body: Valley View served the students in the Highly Capable Program, while Bow Lake was home to the English Language Learning Center, which represents 66 languages, and the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program.

    The resulting design of the new Bow Lake Elementary School blends the students into a melting pot of educational opportunity. Uniquely integrated, students are opened to an opportunity for curiosity and a world of perspective.

    The entire process of consolidating Valley View and Bow Lake has been “a rebirthing,” according to Diana Garcia, principal of Bow Lake Elementary School. “The biggest positive is we’ve been able to take the best of each school and combine it into one. Kids benefit from that.”

    The new two-story, 75,000-square-foot school, located in SeaTac, seamlessly mixes students in five learning communities. Through numerous planning and design meetings with teachers, staff and parents from both schools, the new community was formed and a unified goal for the new school emerged.

    Constant school and district involvement during the design phase helped eradicate any feelings of turf wars.

    “There was never any ‘us versus them,’” Garcia said.

    “Because the staff had a large voice in the design, the end result is exactly what (we) wanted. We were very involved, and therefore very happy. Success breeds success. This is even more reason why the consolidation was ultimately embraced.”

    Overcoming negatives

    Because of the small learning communities, students receive individualized attention while gaining a broad educational experience. These communities have helped to retain the feel of a smaller school.

    The new facility allows for interaction and shared experiences between all students and faculty.

    The facility provides a centralized administrative area and offers personalized learning environments by creating small learning communities around shared activity areas. There are six classrooms clustered around the shared activity room, promoting collaboration and hands-on learning.

    The building further invites students to learn from the surrounding outdoor environment by providing operable glazed systems in each community that literally blurs the line between indoors and outdoors. The building’s layout not only creates independent team areas, but also provides clearly defined, supervisable and logical internal circulation paths throughout the facility.

    The consolidation also benefits the community. The city of SeaTac has a community room in the building, which is used as a community childcare center before and after school hours. This synergy between the school district and the city creates additional funding for the program, serving both public agencies at once.

    Through creative school design, districts and communities can overcome the negatives of school consolidations. As evidenced by Bow Lake Elementary, creative design can bring schools the benefits of a small, personalized education while retaining the economic advantages of consolidation.

    Architecture supplies varied spaces for distinct learners through collaborative space, individualized learning communities, hands-on spaces, site integration or traditional classrooms. School consolidation can be a win-win situation for everyone involved, from leveraging limited tax dollars to creating high educational standards.

    Thomas Bates is managing principal at BLRB Architects in Tacoma, where he has been responsible for the design and completion over 90 educational and community projects.

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