School & District Management Q&A

Could the Design of Your School Be Hurting Attendance?

By Lauraine Langreo — July 25, 2023 4 min read
Kids play in an outdoor playground at the Jefferson Early Learning Center in the Alief Independent School District in Texas.
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Chronic absenteeism—typically defined as a student missing school for at least 10 percent of the school year—has doubled since the start of the pandemic, according to an analysis by Attendance Works, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization.

Absenteeism is affected by a range of out-of-school issues, and schools have adopted comprehensive strategies to improve student attendance, from increasing student engagement to monitoring data and working with families.

In a Zoom interview with Education Week, Melissa Turnbaugh, a partner and the national education and innovation leader for architecture firm PBK, suggests that one way to think about improving attendance is by examining the quality of learning environments. PBK is one of the largest K-12 architecture companies, along with DLR Group, Huckabee Architects, Stantec, and VLK Architects, according to Building Design + Construction magazine. PBK has designed more than 1,200 new K-12 schools nationwide over the years, including Bellaire High School in the Houston Independent School District and the Jefferson Early Learning Center in the Alief Independent School District in Texas.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How does school design affect student attendance and learning?

Melissa Turnbaugh, a partner and national education and innovation leader for architecture firm PBK.

Natural light has improved performance—it’s really important to have natural light in our learning environments.

Air quality—there’s been a lot of focus and research on air quality in schools. It not only helps with student performance. If you can provide an environment where people are healthy and safe, they want to come to school.

Outdoor learning: With us spending so much time in front of devices, it has been really hard, physically and emotionally, for everyone, especially students. As we look at the learning environment, historically we’ve thought of it within the walls of the school. Now we have the opportunity to think outside of the walls of the school and give kids access to nature, and that has proven to help behavioral issues and emotional health, physical health. The more time students, especially the younger ones, have access to outdoor space, the healthier they are.

Then there are different factors that are really important about the environment itself. If students can feel like they have ownership of a space and they can make it their own, they’re more engaged and that engagement turns into attendance, turns into improved test scores.

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A large tree offers shade over the picnic tables in the Senior Courtyard at George C. Marshall High School in Falls Church, Va., on March 1, 2023. Students often use the outdoor space to eat lunch on sunny days.
A large tree offers shade over the picnic tables in the Senior Courtyard at George C. Marshall High School in Falls Church, Va., on March 1, 2023. Students often use the outdoor space to eat lunch on sunny days.
Jaclyn Borowski/Education Week

What about designing schools for teacher retention?

So often our designs have been historically focused solely on students, but for the teachers, this is their workplace and this is a place where they are spending their careers. Now, there’s a big focus on creating an environment that feels like a workplace for teachers, so that they have not just teachers’ lounges, but they might have places where they can go and have retreats, whether that be inside or outside. There’s also a lot more teacher collaboration spaces, and understanding that they don’t want to be in isolation, that they need space to gather and collaborate together, whether it be academic or personal, so that they have those connections.

Schools have limited budgets. What can they do to improve school design with what they already have?

There are some small things that can be done with big impact. Natural light is one. Furniture—maybe you can start manipulating furniture so that you’re giving more flexibility within the classroom for the teacher or the students to create and transform their learning environment.

I think one of the reasons I’m such a huge fan of outdoor learning is it’s the most economical square footage. It doesn’t have to be this huge investment. It can be something that’s fairly economical. The physical act of just going outside and having access to light and nature and air and bird sounds—all of that is a pretty low-hanging fruit and can be really helpful.

There are a lot of organizations that have a heart and hunger to give kids an opportunity, so finding those kinds of public-private partnerships, where it might be that the automotive dealership down the street is sponsoring an automotive lift [for a career-technical education class], or it might be that an environmental group would help with the gardens. It’s not going to probably build a brand new school, but on some of these micro-modifications, it might really help and I think that’s the exciting piece that is underutilized that we can really take advantage of.

See Also

Illustration of children walking over missing puzzle piece.
SIphotography/Getty

How can schools balance school safety with other parts of a school’s design that enhances student motivation and learning?

There was a period in time where historically schools were designed very safe, but they were not good for learning—it had no windows, it had really kind of sterile environments. So it is really important to find this balance of environments that are safe, physically but also emotionally.

There are different layers. We start with the exterior. We’re using and leveraging technology with door locks and access control, but we don’t want to wall off and close all the windows because of all the benefits of windows and natural light. The play spaces and the outdoor learning is behind fences or it’s in a more enclosed courtyard.

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