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Reform from the Ground Up: Looking at School Design


Too often, when people talk about school reform, they never look at how the facilities themselves affect education. Paying more attention to school design can enhance learning, according to researcher Michael DeArmond. Included: Information on school design and learning.

Michael DeArmond

Say school reform and most people think of everyone except the building itself. Researcher Michael DeArmond thinks its time reformers examine how facilities affect learning. DeArmond, a research staff member at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington's Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs, is the co-author of the report The Future of School Facilities: Getting Ahead of the Curve. His research has focused on the reform of district-level operations, including human resources management and facilities management.

Education World: Why do you think school building designs have received so little attention in school reform discussions?

Michael DeArmond: When people talk about reform, they generally take school facilities as a fixed frame of reference. Part of the reason is that the connection between school facilities and learning is fuzzy when compared to, say, investments in teacher quality. But it's also because solutions to facilities problems -- whether [pertaining to] design, provision, or use -- can have relatively long time horizons. Most school board members and superintendents, on the other hand, face strong incentives to focus on the here and now.

EW: What are some simple design changes that can enhance learning?

DeArmond: One of the watchwords for forward-looking design is flexibility. When it comes to learning groups and space, for example, a school might be designed to accommodate various sized learning groups -- 100 students, five groups of 20, groups of 12, or groups of four to six or one or two students. More modest design ideas include using well defined "activity pockets" for student work, and providing students with a "home base" (not just a locker) as their personal space.

EW: How can financially strapped districts find ways to renovate their buildings?

DeArmond: There are no easy answers. Districts that are struggling to get voter approval to borrow money might explore alternative financial arrangements like purchase-lease agreements where a developer builds and leases a facility to a district, or public-private partnerships for shared facilities use.

EW: What are some building renovations that can save districts money?

DeArmond: Many of the facilities problems we face today -- at least those related to the condition of our school buildings -- are the result of deferred maintenance. So districts need a regular schedule of inspections and preventative maintenance.

"When people talk about reform, they generally take school facilities as a fixed frame of reference," says Michael DeArmond, staff member at the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

Beyond this, district officials might find ways to save (or even earn) money by asking some hard questions about the opportunity costs associated with their current real estate portfolio. For example, they might ask themselves: How much is district real estate really worth? If we sold an asset and then leased it back, could we raise extra money to spend on educational programs? Could we use a mixed-use agreement to squeeze out some of the market value of our properties? Do we need all of the space we own? How could our assets provide better long-term return for the district? Too often, school officials don't ask themselves these tough questions.

EW: What has been the reaction to your report?

DeArmond: People are interested in the most radical idea in the report: that a district might want to get out of the real estate business altogether by creating a new independent non-profit to manage facilities. This is the idea of a Public Schools Real Estate Trust, which was developed by Paul Hill at the University of Washington.

This e-interview with Michael DeArmond is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.


Article by Ellen R. Delisio
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