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Rethink the School Building

School buildings are often crowded, expensive to build and maintain, and maybe now, unnecessary (at least in their present form)

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I am a.....

  • Teacher
  • Parent/Caregiver

Tell us about your idea

School districts will not only face issues of how teaching and learning may change because of the pandemic, but also issues of where learning will take place.  School boards are already facing significant budget constraints as the tax revenues that are necessary to operate public schools have fallen precipitously.  Most often in such times, school budgets are recalculated to cut out capital expenses, including maintenance that has already been put off too long.  

Many school buildings are run down, drab, crowded or underutilized.  The physical environment, including layouts and furnishings, are not readily adaptable to changes in teaching and learning, and building new schools is expensive.  Few school districts are able to start planning and budgeting now to build new schools when the schools that are now new become obsolete, much less replace all buildings that have long outlived their service life. 

Do schools need to be confined by concrete and brick?  What if schools be more mobile, more flexible?  My experience teaching remotely while my children have been learning remotely has highlighted to me impediments to learning for individual students in the traditional school building.  One such impediment is the time they must be in school.  Both my students and my own children seem to do better at getting work done later in the afternoon/evening.  Another impediment is the forced order of learning.  Learning remotely has given students more flexibility over when they concentrate on a particular subject, tackling the subjects when they are ready.  A third impediment is the lock-step movement of the class through a subject.  While we talk about "differentiating", teachers still must move through an agenda and curriculum at a pace not dictated by student learning, but by a district or state calendar.  Learning remotely has allowed students to slow down or speed up their learning.  And, physical buildings and traditional classrooms are an impediment to students who want (and need) to stretch and move as they think, or take a break from thinking.

It is not just student learning that is impeded: relationships between teachers, parents, and community have changed with remote learning.  Before, parents had to make their way to the school to meet with teachers; community members were physically separated from the learning environment.  Now, parents are creating the learning environment, and teachers are able to move into the students' environment, either remotely, or by reaching out in person, to facilitate learning.  The community is made more aware of learning inequities, as we have struggled to find ways to allow students to connect to remote learning.  The inequities in the availability of technologies many take for granted are highlighted instead of hidden behind school walls.  

We also have a perennial problem of not having sufficient bus drivers to move students to and from school, students missing the bus, or students having to get up too early for a long bus ride to school.   If schools were not constrained by a physical, unmovable location, these problems could be lessened.

How can we move away from school being locked into a physical, centralized place?  Schools can be more flexible and mobile through a combination of a physical building and mobile classrooms.  A physical building will be necessary to allow for libraries, certain technologies, certain classes, and to allow students to come together.  Mobile classrooms could include buses reconditioned as mobile classrooms and teachers going to existing neighborhood locations, like libraries and recreation centers.  Classes could be offered at different times and locations, and could be restructured so that students who can learn independently have more work outside of class and students that need more teacher involvement in their learning could receive it at a pace more suited for that student.  

The physical buildings could be designed with moveable walls and adaptable furniture, such as tables that can raise or lower and desks that can be expanded from individual desks to larger tables.  Times students attend school could be staggered, with "on-campus" learning and "off-campus" learning being offered at the same time so schools do not need to be built for the largest potential capacity.   

Physical locations for schools should also incorporate more outdoor space into the everyday learning environment so that teacher can incorporate the natural world into classroom learning.  During this pandemic, one thing has become clear -- when we adults are forced to be inside, we long to be outside.  Our children are no different.  

What part(s) of the pre-COVID school system do you wish to leave in the past? Why?

Standardized testing, pacing requirements, and teacher evaluations based upon tests and random 15 minute class visits. Regardless of what you try to do as a teacher, it is nearly impossible to avoid "teaching to the test" because that is what is used to measure how your students (and you). If the standardized test for the subject you teach is heavy on factual knowledge, such as history, the lessons tend to be focused on learning facts rather than learning how to learn or engage in independent thought. Because of the focus on testing, the class really ends two months early, with one month being devoted to review and test prep and one month to testing. Pacing requirements are tied into the testing, because the state or school district decides what you need to be teaching when to ensure everything that is on the test will be covered. So even if it would excite the students to dive deep into a particular subject, and they could be learning and honing important skills, teachers are pressed to move on to keep up with the pacing guides. Linked to both are teacher evaluations that are a checklist -- is the teacher following the agenda, is the teacher on pace, is the teacher sticking to the curriculum requirements, are the students going to get the correct score on the test?

Tell us a little bit about yourself and what inspired you to share this idea.

I am a "career-switcher", switching from practicing law to teaching middle school history in public schools.  (Everyone asks why:  Short answer:  My husband started teaching high school math and convinced me to switch, too; longer answer:  I was ready for a new challenge and wanted to get involved in something where I felt I was meeting a need in my community, which has a teacher shortage).   I have one child graduating from high school this year and one in middle school.  We live and teach in a school district that is considered "urban".   

During this pandemic, I have seen many students who during the school year while surrounded by peers did little work now completing work.  I have seen my students completing work at all hours of the day and evening.  My middle schooler has thrived at home where she can do the work in the order that she wants and when she wants (she works best between 4 p.m. and 9 p.m.).

I have seen greater parent engagement by parents whose students need that individualized time.  And I have seen more connections between teachers and students where they live.  We have more connection because we have the time and opportunity to reach out to parents and students outside of the building.  

Our school board just recently had to cut out capital improvement projects because of the pandemic. We have many old school buildings that have already had too many capital improvement projects delayed.    Delay adds to the cost when these projects are eventually done while the physical environment our students have for learning continues to decline.  

While I have felt for years that we need to do something different than our traditional school buildings because of the costs and the inequities caused by such costs, teaching during the pandemic inspired me to think outside the building to more flexible and mobile options.

What region are you located in?

  • North America

Where are you located?

I live and teach in Norfolk, Virginia. The city is home to the largest naval base and two universities, Old Dominion University and Norfolk State University. The city has approximately 250,000 residents living in 96 square miles. It is surrounded by other cities in its metropolitan area and the total metropolitan population is 1.7. (Norfolk and the surrounding cities are unique in that they are independent cities, not part of any county). In 2017, 20% of the population of Norfolk lived in poverty. Nearly 75% of school children in Norfolk are eligible for free or reduced lunch.


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