School Climate & Safety

Flint, Mich., Superintendent Explores Underground Move

By Joetta L. Sack — September 18, 2002 3 min read

The superintendent in Flint, Mich., is taking the proposition “If you build it, they will come” to new heights—or perhaps depths—with a radical idea for underground schools.

Felix H. Chow has suggested that the city’s 21,000-student district eventually replace its 54 aging school buildings with three large facilities built mostly underground. He believes such a plan might not only provide new and energy- efficient buildings, but also bring national recognition to the ailing district, which sees no end to recent enrollment declines.

He envisions the schools as a sort of underground city, built with classrooms around the perimeter of an octagonal, circular, or rectangular building. Each facility would have one story above ground and three stories underground, and could serve up to 5,000 students.

The classrooms would be open to a courtyard-style area that would be lighted by a massive skylight in the roof.

Mr. Chow said he was influenced by underground convention centers and European buildings with courtyards.

The proposal is in the very early stages and is part of a much broader, long-term agenda that includes curriculum and other matters. Mr. Chow, who admits he’s not even sure if the notion is feasible, has been floating it to bemused school board and community members in recent weeks.

“At this point, it is a very conceptual idea—it could not go anywhere at all,” Mr. Chow said in an interview. “My main point to the board and public is that we have to design a system that works for the next 100 years.”

The Flint district has closed several schools because of the declining enrollment, he added, and underground facilities could allow administrators to shut off bottom levels when the space was not needed. He also believes such schools could be much cheaper to operate.

Barbara C. Worth, an assistant director of the Council of Educational Facility Planners International, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., said some schools use berms of earth on one or two sides to save on energy costs. But she said she knew of no existing schools that remotely resemble Mr. Chow’s vision.

‘Quite a Hole’

Ms. Worth and other outside experts who were queried for this story appeared intrigued by the concept but were skeptical about its practicality, considering Michigan’s wet climate and harsh winters, and such a plan’s affordability.

“I don’t know how they’d make it water-tight, and I think the mold problems and air quality would be terrible,” Ms. Worth said.

Ronald H. Fanning, the chairman of the board of Fanning/Howey Associates Inc., a school architecture firm based in Celina, Ohio, is an advocate of energy-saving schools and has built several schools in Indiana that are partially enclosed by earth. He said a design such as Mr. Chow’s was worth pursuing for its attention to conservation, and it could be much cheaper to heat and cool, as underground climates retain a steady 55- degree temperature.

But he cautioned that it still could be an expensive plan.

“It probably has some merit, but there are a lot of other issues you have to deal with though,” Mr. Fanning said. In addition to mold and moisture, getting enough natural light to classrooms and accessibility to outdoor areas could be daunting and expensive challenges to overcome, he said.

“All these problems are solvable,” he said, “but have a price tag attached.”

Flint’s Mr. Chow said that he would abandon the plan if it were to prove structurally too daunting.

The Clark County, Nev., school district, which includes Las Vegas, built two one-story schools in the 1990s that are partially underground, with playgrounds on the roofs. The schools require little maintenance and have cut energy costs in the area’s desert climate, said Dale Scheideman, the 220,000-student district’s director of new schools and facility planning.

But Michigan’s climate would be vastly different, he said, adding that four- story structures are also not appropriate for elementary schools and young children.

Furthermore, he added, “that’s quite a hole in the ground.”

Assistant Managing Editor Scott W. Wright contributed to this story.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
How Schools Can Implement Safe In-Person Learning
In order for in-person schooling to resume, it will be necessary to instill a sense of confidence that it is safe to return. BD is hosting a virtual panel discussing the benefits of asymptomatic screening
Content provided by BD
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
How Districts Are Centering Relationships and Systemic SEL for Back to School 21-22
As educators and leaders consider how SEL fits into their reopening and back-to-school plans, it must go beyond an SEL curriculum. SEL is part of who we are as educators and students, as well as
Content provided by Panorama Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Achievement Webinar
The Fall K-3 Classroom: What the data imply about composition, challenges and opportunities
The data tracking learning loss among the nation’s schoolchildren confirms that things are bad and getting worse. The data also tells another story — one with serious implications for the hoped for learning recovery initiatives
Content provided by Campaign for Grade-Level Reading

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School Climate & Safety Sponsor
Putting safety first: COVID-19 testing in schools
Are schools ready to offer a post-pandemic place to learn?
Content provided by BD
School Climate & Safety What the Research Says Teens Are Driving COVID-19 Surges. Can Schools Counteract That?
Teenagers and young adults are now driving COVID-19 cases in some states, and experts say schools may be critical in preventing outbreaks.
4 min read
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
School Climate & Safety Opinion Empowering Teachers and Parents to Speak Up on School Safety
Rick Hess shares practical suggestions from Max Eden on how to ensure school discipline reforms are indeed keeping students and staff safe.
3 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
School Climate & Safety Audio Driving the School Bus, Waiting for a Vaccine
A veteran bus driver holds out hope he won't get COVID-19 while awaiting his first vaccination.
3 min read
Eric Griffith, 55, poses for a portrait in front of a school bus in Jacksonville, Fla. on Thursday, March 18, 2021. Griffith, who has been a school bus driver for 20 years, delivered meals and educational materials during the first couple months of the coronavirus pandemic when schools shifted to remote learning.
Eric Griffith has been a bus driver for Duval County schools in Jacksonville, Fla., for 20 years. He's been driving students all year and hopes to get his coronavirus vaccine soon.
Charlotte Kesl for Education Week