Guest Commentary - April 2017
By James Craig
We Need to Re-Imagine Our School Facilities
As a member of the Cedar Rapids Community School District’s Facilities Master Planning (FMP) Committee, I am one of some 70 staff and community members tasked with re-envisioning 21st Century learning and considering how this affects our school buildings. My four children were successfully educated in the CRCSD system. I agreed to serve on the FMP Committee because I believe every young person in our community should have the same great educational opportunities that my children had. My service on the committee has affirmed for me the need to reimagine how we build new and renovate existing school faculties to insure the success of our youth in today’s economy.
After months of study with this committee, I have come to recognize that children today learn differently than I did. A child today becomes technologically proficient at a very early age and has instant access to a world of information. Traditional didactic learning with a teacher up front lecturing to students seated in rows writing, reciting and memorizing no longer holds the attention of young people throughout a school day. The world has also changed. Gone is the day when education can follow the simple design of preparing students to be farmers, manufacturing/trades workers, or attend college. Our economy requires workers educated in an ever-increasing variety of subjects, including computer sciences, advanced manufacturing, industrial equipment maintenance, robotic engineering and repair, wind energy, precise mechanical technologies and medical professionals, and technicians to name just a few.
As jobs in our economy change, so too must education. Core skills of math, science, and language remain as important as ever. However, subjects like global awareness, media literacy, collaborative learning, group problem solving, persuasive speech, and the use of technology to conduct research are now equally important. Classrooms today require areas for small group learning and technology that includes multiple computers, tablets, and interactive displays. In 10 years, students will learn with technology not yet created. A box-shaped room with four fixed walls, single-seat desks, and blackboards no longer maximizes student learning.
As the methods of teaching and learning change, so too must our school facilities. All but one of our district’s 31 schools are more than 50 years old. Some buildings have been in service for more than 100 years. Most have narrow hallways, poor lighting, uneven temperature control, and are difficult to upgrade for today’s technology. We need flexible spaces designed to teach large groups with moveable walls that divide into spaces for small group planning and project work, and areas that allow individual study and one-on-one instructor/ student learning. We also need space for students to work with tools, robots, electric cars, and machines. Collaborative learning involving business and community volunteers requires space for real world work. Our existing schools don’t readily allow for these types of learning. Through tours of other Iowa and Kansas schools, FMP Committee members found that such schools already exist and confirmed that they do improve teaching and learning.
Research shows that school facilities have a profound effect on education. Modern schools enhance teacher recruitment, retention, and performance. More importantly, student learning and student health is improved. New building designs improve air quality, reduce noise levels, equalize temperatures and provide bright, naturally lit workspaces. Upgrades like these reduce absenteeism and distraction while enhancing comfort and attitudes that promote learning. School safety and accessibility are more important than ever, but are difficult to incorporate into aging facilities built for a different era. Upgrades to safety and accessibility are also demanded by parents, teachers, and community members. That more than 900 students from our district are choosing to attend new schools in bordering districts is evidence that quality school facilities matter to parents today.
Unfortunately, as the need for new and/or updated facilities becomes imperative, money available for new school construction, renovation, maintenance and repair has declined. Legislators wrestling with declining tax receipts and competing money demands continually reduce funds allocated to education.
As a result, we must change our thinking about constructing new schools and significantly remodeling some existing schools. On average, each of our 21 elementary schools now require $9,000,000 in renovations and repairs to allow them to meet national school building education, and health and safety standards. The average cost of annual operations for our elementary schools is nearly $50,000, driven up by the significantly higher cost of operating our oldest school buildings. At the same time, we have more classroom space in our elementary schools than our current and projected student numbers require.
The FMP Committee has learned that construction of a new 600-student elementary school will cost between 16 and 20 million dollars. No small sum, but simple math reveals that - by consolidating two elementary school buildings - we can build one new school for approximately the same cost of renovating the two older buildings. With fewer elementary buildings, the district would reduce operating and future maintenance costs; halve the number of administrators needed; provide a modern, flexible, healthy, safe, and accessible learning environment; and improve teacher and student performance while serving the same number of students.
Admittedly, some studies show students in small schools and smaller classrooms learn at least as well - if not better - than students in larger schools. But, we can configure larger schools to feature ‘schools within schools’ or grade pods that offer small-group learning environments, while also educating our students more cost effectively. With most of our elementary schools exceeding 50 years of age, continued attempts to renovate and repair will eventually become impractical and non-economical. The FMP Committee believes we have already reached that point. We need to re-imagine and re-envision our school facilities to conserve scarce educational dollars and to meet the challenge of educating our students for 21st Century careers to keep them competitive in the world market place.
Please visit the District website (www.cr.k12.ia.us) to learn more about the work that done to this point and how you can participate by attending one of the upcoming Community Input Sessions. Members of the FMP Committee would welcome the opportunity to visit with you on April 11, 12, or 13. A feedback survey will also be available from the District website (www.cr.k12.ia.us) April 18-28. We want your participation as we continue our work and prepare to make recommendations to the Board of Education regarding next steps.
James P. Craig is a founding member of Lederer, Weston, Craig PLC.
COMMUNITY INPUT SESSIONS
Tuesday, April 11
6:00- 8:00 p.m.
Arthur Elementary School
2630 B. Avenue NE – Cedar Rapids
Wednesday, April 12
6:00 – 8:00 p.m.
Van Buren Elementary School
2525 29th Street SW – Cedar Rapids
Thursday, April 13
6:00 – 8:00 p.m.
Nixon Elementary School
200 Nixon Drive – Hiawatha