DesignShare Logo

Search

Our Current Featured Education Group:
Directory Case Studies Articles Awards Program Language of School Design
Membership E-Newsletter Events About Contact Home
What Can $3.6 Billion Buy? Los Angeles School Construction Has a Choice
 

Randy FieldingRandall Fielding, AIA



LA is building schools quickly and efficiently, but are they the right schools?

Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is pioneering a more efficient method for managing a $3.6 billion construction program—decisions are made faster and vendors are paid in a timely manner. According to district administrators, the first phase of the program, to build 79 new schools and renovate 80 others, is well on its way to completion. Phase One includes 78,000 seats, with a total of 200,000 seats needed.

But is LA focused on delivering seats that will stand the test of time from an educational perspective? By most modern measures, the answer seems to be no. However, all is not lost. The district’s commitment to build schools quickly and efficiently could be tied to getting the right schools built quickly and efficiently.

What are the right schools?

Research on learning tells us that successful learners need a variety of spaces — collaborative space, individual quiet areas and active space that supports movement and making things (Wolff and Fielding, 2002). Successful models involve educators in the planning and design process and are based on an intimate knowledge of the various ways in which learning occurs. This approach is likely to produce the right schools, far removed from the canned designs of the past. What are the characteristics of these right schools?

  • They are small (ideally 400 students or less)
  • Their environments can be personalized to a variety of learning styles
  • They include collaborative space
  • There are individual quiet areas
  • There are active spaces that support movement
  • There are messy lab spaces that support making things
  • Natural daylighting is abundant – particularly in areas where student spend most of their time

The research is in — the environment has a critical impact on learning outcomes (Lisa Heschong ). But beyond the research that connects school facilities and learning outcomes, there are hundreds of school designs around the world that represent the best thinking and best practice in this arena (Designshare 2000-2003). Based on the progress of the City’s work to date, there is little evidence that these kinds of ideas influenced LA’s program.

Delivering seats or education?

In a rush to deliver more seats, LAUSD guided its architects to build thousands of new classrooms, using a worn-out model that has little to do with learning and everything to do with controlling students. The LA approach is a remake of the classroom model developed in the early 1900s, where the multi-age, multi-disciplinary one-room schoolhouse gave way to the assembly line-style school of a rapidly industrializing society. Students were broken down into manageable groups by age and housed in rectilinear rooms on both sides of a corridor. The basic organization has changed little in the L.A. re-make, although the ceilings are typically lower now and there is less use of natural daylighting and ventilation. As is often the case with a remake, the original model was more successful.

“Nature has not adapted the young animal to the narrow desk, the crowded curriculum, the silent absorption of complicated facts.”
John Dewey

John Dewey, one of the world’s great educators, recognized the problem with comparing students to objects of mass production when he wrote in 1915 that “Nature has not adapted the young animal to the narrow desk, the crowded curriculum, the silent absorption of complicated facts.” No one argues that we are in an industrial age anymore, and since Dewey’s time, we have a lot more information today about better ways to plan and design schools.

So why the outdated plans?

A fearful reaction to the failure of the open classroom movement of the 1970s is part of the problem. The open classroom was typically too open, without enough clear definition or varied levels of acoustical and visual privacy. Additionally, many open schools lacked the sustained leadership and teacher training needed to adapt to a new model. Fortunately, there are a number of design approaches that provide a balance of clearly delineated space and flexible, open space.

“There are a number of design approaches that provide a balance of clearly delineated space and flexible, open space.”

Haste makes waste

I asked one of the architects responsible for a school why they utilized outdated design models—didn’t they explore alternative models, such as those that would be more supportive of project-based learning? He replied that many of the firms that had been commissioned to design schools had tried, but that they were told not to push the issue because of time constraints.

The pressure of an exploding school population, of students taking 1½-hour bus rides to get to school and of schools with triple track schedules all provided an impetus to focus on speed and efficiency, and this is understandable. But as the old adage teaches us: “haste makes waste.” Spending $3.6 billion on schools based upon an outdated design concept–can this be efficient? In spite of the painful reckoning involved in looking back, in redoing completed plans, LAUSD would do well to reevaluate the designs—a majority of the new construction has not been completed–it’s not too late.

As renowned school planner Prakash Nair reminds us, the key question for facilities should be “but are they learning?” (Nair 2002 ). If LA cannot definitively answer that its facilities program is designed specifically to improve learning outcomes measured not only by academic achievement but a host of social and psychological measures, then doesn’t it make sense to rethink the program?

Building capacity in effective schools

Facilities, of course, are only a part of the solution for successful schools. Victoria Bergsagel, president of Architects for Achievement, summarizes four key areas for building capacity in effective schools: 1) leadership capacity, 2) instructional principles, 3) community connections and involvement, and 4) facilities capacity. Bergsagel’s company recently partnered with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to provide seminars to the LAUSD that focus on the advantages of small schools.

According to Bergsagel, LAUSD is responsive to the idea of small schools, and is considering moving towards a model of 400 - 550-student schools in the Phase Two construction program. The move toward smaller learning communities is a national trend with broad support. Perhaps LAUSD could take another look at Phase One schools with an eye toward creating small schools within each larger school. While a school-within-a-school does not have the same benefits as a small school, it is a better solution than the conventional large institution (Knowledge Works Foundation 2002 )

Any new planning efforts related to the construction of Phase One and Phase Two schools will benefit from a multi-disciplinary advisory group that incorporates the key capacities of leadership, instruction, community, and facilities.

LA Cool?

“A stylish and at times innovative use of industrial materials like concrete and corrugated metal distinguishes these schools from their tamer counterparts in the rest of the country–many qualify for the architectural term “LA Cool.”

Because LA is building so many schools rapidly, the district set up an advisory council of prominent architects to review design work. The Council is strong on basic architectural principles but seems to have a limited understanding of 21st century learning—they desperately need more involvement by educators.

The Advisory Council, along with the J. Paul Getty Trust, and the USC School of Architecture sponsored a symposium entitled “Lessons Learned” in 2002 at the Getty Center, where they showcased 20 of their “best” designs. A stylish and at times innovative use of industrial materials like concrete and corrugated metal distinguishes these schools from their tamer counterparts in the rest of the country–many qualify for the architectural term “LA Cool.”

A number of the schools show a strong sense of urban and neighborhood connection. Street “edges” are respected and reinforced, and strong outdoor courtyard and intermediate spaces are evident. Some schools include community rooms and community health clinics. These positive qualities appear to have lulled the District administration and Design Advisory Council into thinking that they do not need to do more. In the process, they have created 159 schools with nice skin that lack the vital organs to sustain themselves as viable learning environments over the coming decades.

Not too late

It may be too time-consuming and expensive to completely redesign the un-constructed Phase One designs; however, it’s not too late to build on the positive qualities of the Phase One designs and make modest revisions. Good streetscapes, outdoor spaces and community connections are an excellent foundation to build on. A compromise would be to take another look at the arrangement of the interior walls. Within these larger schools (many over 1,000 students), they will do well to organize the space to nurture smaller learning communities.

Sustainable, high performance design

In addition to developing designs that foster small learning communities, LAUSD should focus more on sustainable, high performance design. A good place to start is with natural light—daylighting improves student performance and saves electric lighting and cooling costs. Yet the use of daylighting in new LA schools is sporadic at best. Many learning spaces I observed in the phase one program had no windows at all, taking the position that if it’s not an official classroom, then natural light is not important. This goes back to the misplaced assumption that all learning takes place in classrooms. The reality is that learning also takes place in the spaces in-between classrooms, the hallways, niches off hallways and the common areas for eating and playing—is natural light any less important there?

“This goes back to the misplaced assumption that all learning takes place in classrooms. The reality is that learning also takes place in the spaces in-between classrooms, the hallways, niches off hallways and the common areas for eating and playing…”

Daylight + quality electric lighting

In areas where the building configuration does not allow for natural light, the quality of electric lighting in LA schools is also sporadic. While some schools in Phase One utilize a good combination of direct and indirect lighting, others use lighting that is essentially the same as that used in 1960s discount retail stores—intense, direct, distracting, and disregarding research about the impact of good lighting on student health and performance (Fielding, 2000 ). LAUSD may be holding onto another myth of industrial era school design–that lighting in schools must be of a uniform brightness. Once again, the reality is that varied lighting levels are more conducive to improving the quality of varied learning settings.

Natural ventilation and ecological water management

Another important area is natural ventilation and ecological water management. LA is blessed with an enviable climate, but many of the schools I observed were hopelessly dependent on air conditioning. There seemed to be minimal use of planted green areas that moderate the temperature. One architect explained to me that the playing fields got such a high use that artificial turf was the only practical solution. But if we are talking about sustaining our planet (while creating a better surface for students to play on) should our vision be so shortsighted?

There are successful models of schools with sub-surface irrigation fed by gray water from the school showers, hand washing, and kitchen sinks. Because sub-surface irrigation is so much more efficient, the turf is far more resilient. Equally important, schools are conserving thousands of gallons of water and saving money on their water bills (Kirkbride 2003).

Ecology from a broad perspective

Let’s talk about the broadest ecological issues. The real definition of ecology is the science of relationships. Now we get to the greatest weakness of the design model that LA has adopted — the “closed cell” classrooms with impermeable membranes. These are isolated spaces with weak pedagogical, visual, and kinesthetic connections to the school’s circulation system. This is not how cells survive, how biological organisms learn—they learn through movement between the cell walls (Capra, 2003 ). Students, too, need this kind of “permeability” between the classrooms they occupy and the spaces outside the classroom.

“What’s needed today in educational environments is a better balance between the unstructured open classroom of the seventies and the prison-like classrooms of the early 1900s.”

What’s needed today in educational environments is a better balance between the unstructured open classroom of the seventies and the prison-like classrooms of the early 1900s. Instead of wasted corridor space, good school designs include a variety of common areas that serve as connectors and social learning spaces.

Anytime, anywhere learning

And, what about technology? LA should stop lining up computers in inflexible computer labs or against the back wall of classrooms. Instead, LAUSD should install wireless networks and develop a laptop program allowing students to learn anytime, anywhere (Nair 2002 ). Laptops get substantially higher use than desktop computers in schools, they take up less valuable space and encourage collaborative learning. If all their benefits are accounted for, laptops are actually a less expensive solution to technology deployment in schools than desktops.

Anytime, anywhere learning with wireless networks is so clearly superior to the traditional computers-in-the-back-of-the-room model, that no district should plan its technology program without this component. But the answer is not for schools to throw out all its desktop machines, but rather to distribute them in places like the media center where they can be used for applications that demand higher bandwidth and processing power than laptops hooked to wireless networks can deliver.

Build learner-centered schools

It is time for LAUSD to involve educators more closely in school design, and to build schools that are learner-centered, rather than industrial-era designs. Since many of the 159 schools have yet to begin construction, much can still be done to improve the designs according to the principles discussed here. If it does so, then LAUSD can be proud not only for the speed with which it responded to its space crunch, but also for creating schools best suited to developing the skills its children will need to succeed in a new global society.

References

Capra, Fritjof , Hidden Connections, 2002. Capra is an author, physicist and the director for the Center for Eco Literacy in Berkeley, California

Fielding, Randall, Designing a High School for Collaborative, Project-based Learning, DesignShare, 2002
http://www.designshare.com/Fielding/Harbor_City_International.htm

Fielding, Randall, Lighting the Learning Environment, DesignShare and School Construction News, 2000,
http://www.designshare.com/Research/Lighting/LightingEnvr1.htm

Heschong, Lisa; Elzeyadi, Ihab; Knecht, Carey, Re-Analysis Report: Daylighting in Schools, Additional Analysis. (New Buildings Institute, White Salmon, WA. , Feb 14, 2002) This study expands and validates previous research by the Heschong Mahone Group that found a statistical correlation between the amount of daylight in elementary school classrooms and the performance of students on standardized math and reading tests

Designshare Awards Program – 2000 – 2003
www.designshare.com

Kirkbride, Edward, environmentalist and educational planner , conversations with the author, 2002, based on work in Manheim Township, Pennsylvania

Knowledge Works Foundation, Dollars & Sense:
The Cost Effectiveness of Small Schools, 2002 http://www.designshare.com/index.php/articles/cost-small-schools/

Nair, Prakash, But Are They Learning? School Buildings – The Important Unasked Questions, Commentary, Education Week, April 3, 2003

Nair, Prakash, The Role of Wireless Computing Technology in the Design of Schools, National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, 2002. http://www.designshare.com/index.php/articles/wireless-school-design/

Wolff, Susan, Design Features for Project-Based Learning, , DesignShare, 2002
http://www.designshare.com/Research/Wolff/Project_Learning.htm

Randall Fielding is the chairman of Fielding/Nair International, a school planning firm (www.FieldingNair.com) and the founder and editorial director of DesignShare.com. He can be reached at fielding@designshare.com

April 4th, 2006
 

DesignShare publications are submitted by designers, university professors, architects, planning consultants, educators, technologists, futurists, and ecologists. Publications include podcasts, detailed case studies, conference proceedings, interviews, original research, editorials, thesis projects, and practical design guidelines.

WANT TO PUBLISH?

User Tools

Membership | Reprint Policies | About | Contact | Home
© DesignShare.com 1998-2016. All rights reserved.