Time to Improve
Please come to the principal's office!
Most often, facility improvement plans include classroom additions, new science labs, HVAC upgrades or technology, but not upgrades to the administrative suite. With the increasing focus on school leadership as the key to a school’s quality, it is time to pay attention to the needs at the nerve center of the school.
Remember that summons from the intercom speaker requesting the honor of your presence? And while a trip to the office for a special episode of “Truth or Consequences” is just as likely today as it once was, the modern administrative office is truly the nerve center of the school often housing the fire alarm controls, intrusion alarm panels, building automation systems and door access controls for visitors. For those of us involved with planning, design, construction and operations of school buildings, the school office is a crucial element of the facility plan. It is no longer just a matter of providing office and meeting space for school leadership, but also a reception and waiting area for students, parents, volunteers, visitors, service technicians and delivery personnel. The challenge is not only to design these functions into any new school buildings placed into service, but also to adapt spaces to accommodate these functions in existing buildings.
While much of the press has been about technology in the classroom, if anything, administrative technology has had a greater impact on the design of the school office. One single piece of equipment can now print, copy, FAX, e-mail and scan documents from any location in the school building and do it far less expensively than personal printers. The desirability of proximity to a centrally-located machine can radically change office placement, as well as the arrangement of furniture within a school administrative suite. The economy of copier technology has even caused some districts to re-evaluate their use of desktop printers, opting instead for more multi-functional copier/printers. These multi-functional machines make the promise of a paperless office closer to reality. Some administrators are opting for a digital filing system for correspondence and other communication that was formerly relegated to hard copy. Although slower to transition, student records will eventually migrate to digital as well.
Meanwhile, the functional requirements of the school office have changed significantly. Newly constructed elementary, middle and high schools feature administrative spaces that look and feel much different than they did in the past. The typical elementary school officce in older schools was comprised of a room for the principal, the nurse’s room, and a slightly larger space that doubled as the secretary’s office and the waiting area. An instructional supply room and a secure area to store student records completed the package. The list of additional staff continues to grow: assistant principals, business managers, registrars, counselors, psychologists, academic facilitators, resource officers, community liaison and more. Many of these require secure and acoustically isolated offices because of the nature of their work. It should be no surprise that expansion of the administrative suite in elementary schools is appearing on more facility improvement plans and is often part of the scope for many renovation and upgrade projects.
Secondary schools made the move to disperse administrative offices long ago, partly out of sheer necessity to house the growing number of staff or because there was simply no more room in the existing office suite. The plan for housing dispersed offices should clearly be intentional and not serendipitous. Dispersal of technology including all-in-one copiers will likely be more expensive, but may be offset by the operational advantages.
Awareness of the new functions and technologies should drive a detailed evaluation of each and every school office in a district. At a minimum, consideration should be given to how technology is used and what technology could be acquired in the future. Is local power and building service adequate? Is additional HVAC required? Are office locations appropriate? Are additional offices needed in the central office or are they needed elsewhere in the building? How are these spaces networked? Are teachers included?
There is an increased national focus on effective school leadership as the single most important element of higher student achievement. To pro-actively respond you must consider including upgrades to school offices a high priority in your next facility improvement plan.
This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of School Planning & Management.
Andrew LaRowe is president of EduCon Educational Consulting located in Winston Salem, N.C.
Mike Raible is founder and CEO of The School Solutions Group in Charlotte, N.C., and the author of "Every Child, Every Day: Achieving Zero Dropouts Through Performance-Based Education"