Corridors to Change: Comprehensive school reform models may change the way you look at your facilities
Just how "comprehensive" is a comprehensive school reform program? Does itinclude everything from curriculum and instruction down to public spaces,lighting, room size and arrangement, and electrical outlets? Possibly. And doesthe philosophy of a school reform program relate to the design of schoolbuildings and playgrounds? Probably.
Recent trends in school reform and improvement are changing the way schools aredesigned and built. Reform strategies such as smaller classroom size, smallerschool size, interactive learning, technology, teacher planning, new ways ofassessing student performance, and community involvement are affecting how wethink about the learning environment.
The Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration program now underway (see SEDL's web site at http://www.sedl.org/csr/) will give some districts the opportunity toassess their facilities in light of school reform programs as they prepare toapply for funding under the federal CSRD initiative. Other districts and schools may want to adopt a reform model on their own. In either case, a school team oradministrator considering a comprehensive reform model must evaluate it relativeto the school's philosophy and curriculum goals. They also might examine existingfacilities with an eye toward the demands of reform, as many of the models havefeatures that will require some facility adaptation.
Schools Must Face Realities
Evaluating facilities in light of comprehensive school reform models allowsplanners to measure the expectations of the school reform programs "against thepractical realities embedded within the brick and mortar facility," says RogerScott of WestEd, the regional educational laboratory serving Arizona, California, Nevada, and Utah.
Scott designed a school reform facilities audit and pilot tested it at 13campuses with school-wide Title I plans. He examined how well the school couldsupport cooperative learning, teacher professional development, increasedparental involvement, and other reforms that are important elements of many ofthe programs that schools will consider when adopting comprehensive school reformmodels.
Scott found that many of the schools, which served heavy concentrations oflow-income children, weren't designed to conduct existing programs, much lessimplement recent reform plans. The audit found inadequate space for staffdevelopment, counseling, and large group presentations; too few electricaloutlets; little storage for student assessment materials; and inadequatelighting.
Title I schools are not alone in their apparent inability to meet facilitiesrequirements for school reform. The U.S. General Accounting Office, or GAO, alsosurveyed schools across the country to see how well they could accommodate reformstrategies. Approximately one-third of the schools in SEDL's five-state regionreport inadequate facilities for large-group instruction and for laboratoryscience activities, more than one-quarter have inadequate electrical wiring andpower, half of the schools report insufficient computer networking capabilities,and almost one-fifth of the schools report inadequate space for privatecounseling and testing.
Taking the results of Scott's study and the GAO survey at face value, it islikely that many schools will encounter facilities modification as part of theirreform programs. How extreme are the changes that schools must consider? Where doschools turn for advice on making changes based on reform? What does facilitiesadaptation or modification mean to school administrators who feel their schoolsare overcrowded and underfunded? The changes that are needed will vary fromschool to school depending on the model program and on the existing facilitiesand programs. Often the change may be one of mindset.
Near downtown Houston, the Eighth Avenue School serves approximately 300 minoritystudents. The neighborhood is home mainly to Latino working families. Thesurrounding property generates relatively little local wealth, so there are not alot of extra resources. But Principal Teresa Lenoir envisions Eighth Avenue as anurturing, comfortable, learning-centered environment for students and theirfamilies. After Eighth Avenue School adopted the Community for Learning model,Lenoir says minimal, relatively inexpensive changes were made in the classrooms."You just need to rearrange your mind and the furniture!" says Lenoir. To addressher goal to create a more engaging place to learn, they eliminated any desks thatwould not allow the students to form small groups. They also purchased tables andfurniture to make comfortable places for students to read.
"You just need to rearrange your mind and the furniture!"—Dr. Theresa Lenoir, Principal Eighth Avenue School, Houston
Community for Learning is one of the reform models with a community and parentinvolvement component, but each school's plan for that involvement depends on itsresources. With no resources to create a separate meeting place for its parents,Eighth Avenue School staff reschedule activities to accommodate its parents andcommunity members. The school's community/ parent involvement plan includes agroup called Compadres Families, which meets between breakfast and lunch in thecafeteria each Monday, and a parenting class that meets in the teachers' loungeon Wednesdays. When a literacy program meets in the library one day a week,librarians go into the classrooms to read with students. Several other groupsmeet at Eighth Avenue after school hours.
Lenoir enthusiastically admits, "We use any space we have. It is really rescheduling."
Facility Planning Assistance Varies
When reviewing the fit between an existing facility and the requirements of aparticular comprehensive reform model, a school administrator or planning teamwould do well to consult with the model developer. The developer may help theschool determine to what extent modifications are needed to put a model intopractice.
Such guidance is available to schools seeking to implement Modern RedSchoolhouse, which has been adopted by more than a dozen San Antonio schools.Focusing on the classroom learning environment, MRS staff will help assess aschool's environment if the school has not already done so, according to TeressaSkeete, MRS coordinator for the San Antonio area.
"We look at curriculum goals, school goals, and the classroom teacher's goals,"she says. MRH trainers model an ideal classroom environment and then helpteachers make changes in their classrooms to create a similar environment.
At the other end of the continuum of facility assistance is the Edison Project.Because of the privatized nature of its partnerships, it provides a great degreeof model-developer involvement in the facilities. Edison either contracts with aschool district to implement the curriculum, technology plans, and managementsystem, or works with charter schools in start-up operations. When contractingwith districts, Joe Keeney, Edison's facilities coordinator, says hisorganization will generally perform "patch-and-paint" work and electricalupgrades to handle the technology system. Also, Edison's special phone system isusually installed in the buildings. Edison reorganizes a school into smallerunits, called "houses," that are usually color coded. Grades K through 2 arehoused together as are grades 3 through 5. Then, arrangements are made forspecialty classrooms for art, music, and language. A school's financialconstraints often limit what the Edison Project can do to an existing structure.
Technology Drives Changes
For some comprehensive reform programs such as Edison, Modern RedSchoolhouse, and Co-NECT, technology plays a key role in school reform and makesundeniable demands on facilities. Co-NECT requires that schools have computers inevery classroom and on every teacher's desk with Internet access for theteachers. Computers are connected by a school-wide local AREA NETWORK (LAN).
School planners should keep in mind that computers not only have certain powerand networking specifications, but occupy space that might have otherwise beenallocated for desks. Installing computers may also require a change in lightingfixtures. If computers are to be used by groups of children working together onprojects, installation of carpet or acoustic tiles might be necessary to suppressnoise.
Bruce Goldberg, director of the Co-NECT program points out that adapting anexisting building usually calls for compromise.
School administrators might begin by examining the ideal facilities configurationthat model developers suggest and consult with the developer about the scope ofmodifications. Fully implementing a model might take from three to five years, soadministrators and their staff can devise ways to work creatively within theirfiscal and space limitations over time.
And just because a facility isn't perfect, it doesn't mean a chosen comprehensivereform model won't work. As Goldberg observes, it is people - their vision,commitment and ability to work together - who can improve American education. Headds, "If structures are important, it is because they become tools in the handsof a culture that values them and knows how to use them."
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