Archive for Tuesday, October 30, 2012

School building plans reflect modernized instruction

October 30, 2012


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.


David Holroyd 5 years, 4 months ago

Go for broke. This sounds like another experiment. What you get with unemployed architects and a school board that is not responsible with public money.

kuguardgrl13 5 years, 4 months ago

Actually, this seems pretty logical. I went to a school laid out pretty much how they describe. Each grade level has a pod of three classrooms with a common area. Instead of being closed off with doors, the entrances open up to the common area. It's also one of those 1960s "circle" schools.

kuguardgrl13 5 years, 4 months ago

Want to know why several schools have declined enrollment between 09-10 and now? Sixth grade was removed. An entire grade level was removed and not replaced with new students. Kennedy experienced growth because they gained preschool from East Heights. I believe Hillcrest is always growing.

jennifermarti 5 years, 4 months ago

The majority of Hillcrest students are transfers. Very few live in the neighborhood. The ESL children are bussed in from all over Lawrence.

5thgeneration 5 years, 4 months ago

I think that this is great. We all know that the "old" system of classrooms and teaching never produced anyone of any noteworthy intellect. Being forced to pay attention to a teacher at the head of the classroom certainly failed multiple generations of people. People like Bill Gates, and his contemporaries, for example. Why don't we issue every elementary school student an Iphone, and give them their lessons in youtube video and text format?

chootspa 5 years, 4 months ago

Logical fallacies: appeal to tradition, strawman.

Sharon Nottingham 5 years, 4 months ago

I am in favor of getting rid of portables, but bigger classrooms = cramming more students for one teacher.

William Ed 5 years, 4 months ago

Let's see, we have three good buildings that are in inventory (East Hills, Centennial and Wakarusa) where we could allow students to have adequate room by adjusting the school boundaries. Cost maybe in the neighborhood of $10 million to get them ready (covered by annual budget and sale of the 90 acres east of town). Increased bus costs would be 6 times $35,000 annually ($210,000). So instead we can take out a $90,000,000 loan and incur a monthly interest charge of $380,000 per month ($4.55 million per year). The district might have to hire a few more teachers, too. I guess the right decision is to increase our district debt???

EJ Mulligan 5 years, 4 months ago

I have heard some of the same. I think the district needs to come clean and detail its spending from the last bond issue. Then, they can either say "We told you so" or claim responsibility for how it was spent (different school board, partly a different superintendent, etc.) and move on. Until they do that, there is a large group of skeptics in this town.

EJ Mulligan 5 years, 4 months ago

I am in favor of updating and upgrading schools -- many of them need it desperately. But, I am NOT in favor of designing changes specifically for the Educational Philosophy Du Jour. Look no further than Broken Arrow to see that that would be a mistake. Designed modifications should be logical and flexible enough that we won't have to do this again for decades. We don't want to be in the year 2021, looking back and saying, "Remember when small-group projects were all the rage...?"

kuguardgrl13 5 years, 4 months ago

This model they are proposing is very similar to what was done to my elementary school just over 10 years ago. These slightly larger classrooms allow for any number of desk arrangements, depending on the teacher's preference. It also leaves some open floor space so that students have room to do activities not at their desks. The common area shared by rooms allows for grade level activities between classrooms. I would hope that larger classrooms would not encourage USD 497 to increase class sizes. If they are going to combine rooms, they should add rooms as needed. They will need to do this if they want to remove portables.

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