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New Teaching Methods, Technology Add to Space Crunch

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These days, schoolchildren need their space--and they need much more of it than they used to.

In 1970, an average elementary school provided 62 square feet for each of its students. Today's youngsters roam vastly greater territories--111 square feet on average in 1995, according to an annual report by American School and University magazine.

The 79 percent increase stems from a variety of factors, experts say. New teaching methods, increased use of technology, and greater community demands on schools require more, larger, and increasingly more flexible buildings. Middle schools and high schools have grown bigger as well.

"Students no longer sit in neat rows of desks with their sights and attention directed to the teacher at the front of the room," said Paul Abramson, an educational consultant and the publisher of School Planning and Management magazine.

"Today they're all over the place, working in groups, moving around learning stations."

As administrators around the country scramble to build new schools to meet the demands of soaring enrollment, the changing space requirements mean that those schools will cost more than those of even a few years ago.

Not only are today's schools larger, they're also more complex.

A growing number of students with disabilities are moving into regular classrooms, which must be outfitted to accommodate them. Class-size mandates, all-day kindergarten programs, and up-to-date physical education facilities, libraries, and theater-arts programs also add square footage, Mr. Abramson said.

Traditional school designs, with wide hallways dividing long rows of classrooms, are obsolete, said William Payne, an architect with Fanning/Howey Associates in Indianapolis.

"The key today is more space, and more flexible space," Mr. Payne said.

New schools are designed with workstations in each classroom to accommodate individual students and small groups, and there are areas in the school for small- and large-group instruction, he said.

"Classrooms are designed to meet today's demands, but must also be adaptable five or 10 years down the road."

Emerging Technology

Timely access to information--through the Internet, CD-ROMs, fax modems, telephones, and televisions--is seen as increasingly critical for today's students.

And though education experts call technological literacy a "new basic" of education, the limitations of most classrooms in existing schools render such access a luxury for millions of students.

Nearly half the nation's schools have inadequate electrical wiring for computer and communications technology, according to a 1995 study by the U.S. General Accounting Office.

"The outdated condition of schools makes it hard to reach new educational standards," said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools in Washington. "We're expecting world-class standards in Third World facilities."

School planners say the size of the standard classroom needs to increase another 25 percent to incorporate new technology into everyday instruction.

Community Shift

What's more, school architects are incorporating whole communities into facility plans--aiming to accommodate, for example, adults who might take night classes or use library or athletic facilities after hours. Of course, those activities need additional space.

"Community patrons are being given access to modern schools," Mr. Payne said. Schools might share a media center or an adjoining performing arts or recreational center with the community.

Including the entire community in the design of a new school can make the chances for success much brighter when construction plans go to the voters in the form of a bond referendum.

"Schools are in a period of great change," Mr. Payne said. "Our priorities are schools that serve many purposes. Schools that are safe, flexible, and adaptable."

Go directly to the next story in this series, "Private Schools Becoming More Diverse," Oct. 9, 1996.

"Knocking at the Doors" was made possible by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

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