Architects and Educators Working Together

When school facility projects involve joint planning, student learning ought to be the major beneficiary, not just safe and dry spaces
BY JUDITH PAOLUCCI AND MARIO CARRENO/School Administrator, October 2022

Judy Paolucci (second from left) and Mario Carreno (left) meet with an architect and interior designer to review finishing touches for Pleasant View Elementary School in Smithfield, R.I. PHOTO BY HEIDI GUMULA/DBVW ARCHITECTS
In 2016, the Rhode Island School Building Authority commissioned an assessment of more than 300 school campuses and identified more than $2.2 billion in facility deficiency costs, which were expected to increase with each passing year. Thirty percent of the total cost was attributed to what are known as Priority 1 and 2 facility deficiencies — keeping students warm, safe and dry — while the remaining 70 percent included improvements to the instructional environment.

This issue, of course, is not unique to Rhode Island, which enrolls about 142,000 students in public schools. The cost to modernize and replace obsolete schools throughout the nation over the next 10 years totals approximately $1.1 trillion, according to the “2021 State of Our Schools Report: America’s PK–12 Public School Facilities,” a joint publication of the 21st Century School Fund, the International WELL Building Institute and the National Council on School Facilities.

The extent of this deficit and its effect on student learning puts the onus of finding solutions not solely on school districts’ facility directors but on educational leaders as well. They must work together with building architects to address facility deficiencies while advancing improvements to the instructional program. Architects must consider carefully the unique needs of the school community, and district leaders must listen carefully to well-trained school architects and facility planners who understand the importance of collaboration and how color, natural light and other features affect learning.

Special Competencies

Not all design professionals are equipped to engage in such conversations. Those who hold an Accredited Learning Environment Planner endorsement from the Association of Learning Environments, a national accrediting body, demonstrate competencies related to the design of school facilities. The association offers a yearlong certification program and certifies individuals through a dossier review. The program addresses visioning, space analysis, high-performance schools, facility assessments and program management.

Superintendents who work with accredited architects and planners can advance their own understanding of the effects of school environments on learning.

Rhode Island (where one of us spent 12 years in public school administration) has made it a priority to improve learning environments through the passage of a $250 million statewide school construction bond and by providing state aid incentives that encourage educational enhancements. This priority has led to collaborations among educational leaders and design professionals to address this question: What does our community believe to be important goals for teaching and learning?

The School Building Authority provides further guidance to districts with the goal of ensuring learning environments that improve equity for the state’s diverse student populations, increase effectiveness of instruction and allow for greater efficiencies for energy, water and maintenance costs.

The 2016 facility assessments show far greater need in the state’s urban and poorer communities than in more affluent communities that are far less able to generate their own funding through taxation.

Additionally, operating under the belief that learning environments are important to successful teaching and learning, improving the learning environments in the cities and towns where student achievement is lowest, typically the state’s poorest communities, contributes toward more equitable learning outcomes. 

The School Building Authority’s Facility Equity Initiative tries to address equity among Rhode Island students by funding projects in the state’s five least affluent communities and prioritizing projects that affect instruction rather than simply replacing windows and upgrading fire alarms. Approved projects include new media centers, flexible furniture, science lab upgrades and project-based learning rooms.

A Visioning Exercise

The state’s urban core, Providence, has the highest need for facility improvements and increased student achievement. The facility study found more than 90 percent of the city’s schools have a Five-Year Facility Condition Index exceeding 20 percent, meaning the cost of their deficiencies, including those accruing up to 5 years after the study’s conclusion, are greater than 20 percent of the facility’s replacement value. There’s much work to be done in the capital city for its 22,440 students, 80 percent of whom do not meet expectations on state assessments.

During what is termed “the discovery phase” of Providence’s most recent facility projects, a team of architects and planners engaged with teachers, students and community members to assess the stakeholders’ hopes for the future. While the design team could have developed facility plans independently, such plans would not have considered the school’s unique goals for language acquisition, cultural diversity and equity or its teachers’ desire for flexible learning spaces.

The process also enabled the participants to look outside of their own school experiences to envision what school could be like for students and what design opportunities would allow them to better meet their students’ needs.

In Smithfield, R.I., the process of closing one elementary school and renovating and expanding three other elementary facilities took over five years and cost $45 million. Throughout that time, architects worked with building committee members to make vital decisions about how the money was to be spent. Funds were limited. To renovate each building top to bottom would have taken another $20 million. Were it not for the counsel of the design team, pragmatic members of the building committee would have replicated existing class-rooms rather than focusing on additions that included more collaborative and inspiring spaces.

The lesson learned in Smithfield and elsewhere, however, is that constructing innovative spaces for experiential learning and student and teacher collaboration does not ensure these spaces will be used for their intended purpose. Even with the best intentions of designers and educational leaders, many of these spaces are underutilized, and the instructional practices in the school left unchanged.

Cranston’s Experience

Those experienced with the construction process may be familiar with commissioning, the systematic process of checking that building systems are designed as intended and maintained for peak performance. As part of the commissioning process, facilities personnel are trained in operating and maintaining these systems. Similar to traditional commissioning, educational commissioning is the process of ensuring that spaces are designed, constructed and used in conformity with the educational intent of the design and can support teaching, learning and community needs.

District and municipal leaders in Cranston, R.I., an urban ring district, began their facility master planning process with the development of a vision and articulation of guiding principles. The focus on the desired features of new facilities was secondary to discovering the community’s aspirations for their future. This endeavor included a six-month discovery process that gathered input from multiple stakeholders.

Likewise, community members increased their understanding of effective school environments by learning from professionals who have expertise in the effects of school design on learning.

When discussing Cranston’s facility projects, Ed Collins, the district’s chief of facilities management and capital projects, focuses on instruction rather than HVAC systems. The resulting facility master plan includes educational specifications that will provide architects with a guide for designing schools that align with these aspirations.

One of Cranston’s guiding principles is to connect citizens with the public schools and learners with opportunities to enhance the quality of their own community. The educational specifications include secure and welcoming entry designs and space in which community members, students and educators can collaborate. The value of developing guiding principles and educational specifications prior to de-sign cannot be overstated. If members of the community are part of the process of developing guiding principles and understand the reasons for certain design features, they will support expenditures and the resulting facility can better meet the needs of its students and their families.

The first school facility addressed after the development of the educational specifications in Cranston, a district of 10,300 students, was Eden Park Elementary School. Teachers there were already applying innovative practices. However, their facility did not provide for the different types of space they needed. 

During the year before construction began, teachers participated in professional development with a professional holding Accredited Learning Environment Planner certification to redefine how they were going to teach. Concurrently, the design team met with students, teachers and community members. As Eden Park’s principal, Courtney Savigny, describes it, “Instruction pushed design as design pushed instruction.”

While educators remained open-minded to new ideas, the design professionals listened carefully to understand the needs of the school community. Sinks in every classroom, a sensory room for students with special needs and space for green screen work were added to the plans after input from Eden Park teachers. The resulting facility also supports teachers as they collaborate with each other to further student learning. But the work doesn’t end there. Professional development continues, and teachers coach each other toward better practices.

Uncommon Collaboration

Unfortunately, educational commissioning and ongoing professional development to maximize the potential of innovative spaces are not commonplace.

To ensure the state’s investments in its school facilities have the desired effects on instruction, the School Building Authority is encouraging school districts to use educational commissioning for significant facility projects. Such practices will increase the collaboration among educational leaders and design professionals for the benefit of students.

JUDY PAOLUCCI, an education consultant, retired in July as superintendent of Smithfield Public Schools in Smithfield, R.I. Twitter: @JudyPaolucci. MARIO CARRENO is director of the Rhode Island School Building Authority in Providence, R.I.