A FEW COMMON SCHOOL ISSUES

In preparation for a lecture I was asked to give at Cornell University, I looked back at some of the issues I have been dealing with in school districts during the last few years. It was interesting that the same issues keep popping up.

Middle Schools

Middle schools are a fairly common problem. Just as middle grade students seem to baffle many educators, school boards appear to have difficulty planning space for them. Common questions ranged from whether fourth and fifth grade students should be placed in a middle school or an elementary; to how to use an old high school for middle school education (it does not work well); to ways an old junior high can be reorganized to work as a middle school, allowing teaming and cutting down on the movement of students.

Part of the problem for middle school woes, I believe, lies in the political fact of most school districts.

• Parents care passionately about the elementary schools that their children attend and that represent their neighborhood.

• The entire district cares passionately about the high school, its athletic teams and other services it provides to the community.

• The middle schools are neither fish nor fowl and, as a result, often get the least attention.

The New Science Wing

Building new high school science facilities to replace outmoded ones seems like a good idea, but I have seen project after project where, having committed to the new science wing, high school faculties have then tried to develop smaller learning communities within the larger school. The placement of the science facilities in a separate wing became a major obstacle.

New science facilities are needed in most high schools; but new science“wings” signify that science stands by itself and is not a part of each student’s total program. Before planning new facilities for science or any other discipline or service (physical education, performance, food service, even guidance and administration), the wise school district takes time to look at the overall school program and the direction in which it will go during the next decade or two, and then makes specific plans for particular facilities that fit within an overall plan.

Special Education

The concept of inclusion of challenged children in regular classrooms seems to be gaining momentum. The inclusion model assigns each student to a regular class and then follows that student with an additional teacher or aide who monitors the child, supports the work of the classroom teacher and, when necessary, provides individualized help to the needy student.

The concept has some very specific facilities implications. We have worked in districts where no self-contained special education rooms are being planned. (Smaller resource rooms are still planned.) That cuts down on the cost of construction by eliminating rooms. But, at the same time, if there are going to be multiple adults in every classroom (in one school I witnessed a classroom with 24 students, a teacher and three aides), the size of those rooms had better be at least 900 sq. ft., and probably more.

Open Space

Many schools on which I have been working feature open space among a cluster of classrooms, space that can be used for a variety of activities ranging from projects to presentations to individual tutoring or team activities.

This appears to me to be a very positive trend — it opens up the educational program, encourages teachers to work cooperatively and provides space were activities can be planned. But exactly what activities and how will they dictate the way that space will be used? Those are the questions members of school boards keep asking.

If that open space just becomes a widened corridor, it’s an unnecessary expense. If, as it has in many schools, it becomes a center of creative activity, then it transforms the educational process and helps move us into the 21st Century.

A Moving Target: A personal note: My educational consulting firm, Stanton Leggett & Associates, has relocated its offices to Harrison, N.Y. The new address is 47 Halstead Avenue, Harrison N.Y. 10528. The telephone number 914/834-2606 and e-mail remain the same. I look forward to hearing from you.

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year." He can be reached at intelled@aol.com.

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