Lawrence school board members are now poring over sketches and diagrams of how elementary school classrooms could look at the end of a districtwide renovation project.
Those drawings, presented during a work session Monday night, call for reconfiguring space in existing buildings to create more spacious rooms to accommodate the way teachers manage classrooms today.
“The majority of classrooms in our district were built in the mid-century, 1950s or before,” architect John Wilkins told the board. “They’re nice classrooms for what they were intended to be, depending on the number of kids you decide to put in those classrooms. And I think each of the schools at one time or another has had a spike in a particular grade level where they’ve had to put a large number of kids in those classrooms. When they do that, the classrooms that we have are a little bit on the small side, or at least small in terms of the type of education that our teachers are doing today and will be doing more of in the future.”
Wilkins heads the Lawrence office of Gould Evans and Associates, the architecture and design firm working with the district to develop a master plan for facility upgrades.
In years past, Wilkins said, teachers typically arranged their rooms with students’ desks lined up in straight rows. The teacher would stand in front of the class to deliver a lesson, and all students were expected to focus their attention there.
Today, he said, it’s less common for all students in a room to be working on the same thing at the same time. Classrooms are often broken into smaller work groups, “sometimes led by a teacher or (paraprofessional), sometimes with individualized instruction at computers. So if you look at classrooms that are being built today, it means more elbow room for the kids, more room to use.”
Some of the newer elementary schools in Lawrence already are configured for that kind of activity, Wilkins said. But many are not, particularly the six schools in central and east Lawrence that are the focus of building improvement plans: Cordley, Hillcrest, Kennedy, New York, Pinckney and Sunset Hill.
During the work session, Wilkins showed schematics that he has also shown at public input sessions being held throughout the district. They depict combining three classrooms into two to provide each class with additional space as well as “break-out” space, or “pods,” where students can work independently or in small groups apart from the rest of the class.
“All of your schools are using break-out for education today, and all of them do it within the classroom,” Wilkins said. “In the schools that have the common-area pods, they’re spending about half their time breaking out in the classroom and half their time breaking out into these common areas.”
To accomplish that kind of arrangement, Wilkins suggested reconfiguring walls and space to effectively combine groups of three classrooms into two. The middle room in a row of three would be split in half to provide additional space, including break-out space, for the two rooms on either end.
But some of the newer schools could use some reconfiguration and expansion too, he said.
For example, he noted that nearly all elementary schools need to upgrade or expand their special education rooms to meet modern standards. That includes having restrooms adjacent to classrooms, as well as other modifications.
Several schools also need security enhancements, he said, so visitors entering the building cannot pass into halls or rooms without being seen from the administrative office.
As recently as 2011, the six older schools in central and east Lawrence were targeted for closure or consolidation so that money for renovation and expansion could be focused on fewer sites.
But a community task force charged with drawing up specific plans for closure and consolidation ultimately rejected that idea. In a report released in February, that group recommended keeping all 14 of the district’s elementary schools open. It also recommended a capital improvement plan that would bring those schools up to the same standard as newer schools in the district to achieve equity among all the buildings.
Part of that group’s rationale was that enrollment in the six schools appeared to be growing faster than previously projected, so consolidating them into three or four buildings would result in crowded classrooms and the need for new construction to expand the remaining schools.
“In light of enrollment projections, any closing scenario would require a large-scale building effort to replace closed classrooms and accommodate students from closed schools, and the cost of this construction would be considerably greater than the cost of upgrades to the existing schools,” the report stated.
According to official enrollment figures from the Kansas State Department of Education, between the 2009-10 school year and this year, enrollment has declined in four of the six schools: Cordley, New York, Pinckney and Sunset Hill. Of those, New York School saw the biggest decline. It lost 123 students during that time, or about 41 percent. Sunset Hill’s enrollment has declined by only five students, or 1.7 percent.
Hillcrest enrollment has added 29 students during that period, or 8.6 percent. Kennedy is up 48 students, or 14.2 percent.
The plans outlined Monday night, however, would appear to have a similar effect by reducing the number of classrooms that currently exist in each of those buildings, thus making it necessary to expand at least some of them.
Meanwhile, some of those buildings would need to be expanded further still by adding more classrooms to meet the goal of having at least two full classrooms for each grade level, and by eliminating portable buildings with permanent structures as well as providing them with separate gymnasiums and cafeterias.
The purpose of the work session was to get guidance from the school board about whether to proceed along those lines or change the direction of the planning.
None of the board members suggested scaling back or amending the plans.
The board hopes to decide by Jan. 1 on a final master plan, as well as a dollar amount for a bond issue that would fund the projects.
In addition to the building renovations, the bond issue also would include districtwide technology upgrades.
The board then plans to ask voters to approve the bond issue during the April municipal elections.