The Economic Case for Engaged Classrooms in K-12 Schools

Economics are a major factor in every school design decision, often conflicting with the goals of educators. With budgets tight, the discussion inevitably turns to dollars and cents, instead of the benefits of creating better school environments. 

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Next generation K-12 schools classroom advocates don’t have to shy away from the economic debate. They should embrace it. Flexible, modern classrooms should be viewed as a key element of a sound financial strategy, producing a solid return-on-investment.

Dollars and Cents

There are many ways to define value and they all must be part of the discussion. It’s not simply the cost of the buildings and the furniture, fixtures and equipment. The financial calculations need to include social, intellectual and community currency, the nonmonetary factors at the heart of the educational mission. If a facility is not meeting the goals of preparing students for the modern world, then it is not a strong economic plan for the district’s future.

Schools are long-term investments. A classroom that is still functional and relevant over the life span of the school is a smart investment. Open and flexible spaces will support new and innovative future programs, which saves money. You wouldn’t buy a cheap car that’s going to break down in three years any more than you would cut corners on a school that you need to last and stay pertinent for decades.

Looking simply at one-for-one expenditures, it’s true to say a mix of furniture and mobile stations usually costs more than 25 desks and chairs. Innovative materials and windows and flooring that allow for flexible learning spaces can all add cost to the bottom line. But that is an inherently shortsighted calculation.

Districts make a huge investment in their schools; it doesn’t make sense to spend on something that is a compromise. It’s always a better fiscal policy to spend the right amount of money to get something right, instead of spending less money to get something that is inflexible.

All About Efficiency Samueli Academy (3).jpg

Next-gen classrooms are all about efficiency. Smart educational design can find better ways to use space and expand uses, adding value to existing areas and saving costs in the long run. A thoughtful designer can remove walls and find spaces within a corridor, turning a hallway into a teaching area. Standalone spaces that are not universally adaptable are avoided. As a result, the ratio of space to walls and circulation is greatly reduced.

Good design of a modern campus should take a holistic approach, reaping financial benefits throughout the operation. Energy efficiency, which goes hand in hand with modern classroom design, saves money from day one. During the modernization of the Alamo Heights Independent School District (ISD) in Texas, LPA designed a districtwide one megawatt (MW) solar photovoltaic system that saves approximately $260,000 annually.

But alternative energy grids are only part of the smart classroom process. The correct building orientation and window designs shield rooms from the heat, while maximizing opportunities for natural light, making for a brighter classroom experience and helping to create opportunities for incorporating outdoor spaces into the learning environment. Sensors can dim lights when natural light is available in daylit spaces, further cutting energy costs. No-wax floors provide great, versatile surfaces and help reduce custodial costs.

Even in the construction process, there are ways to slice expenditures. At LPA, we’ve developed a specialty in reimagining a campus while it stays operational. We essentially rebuild the spaces on top of the existing school. It’s a big, complicated shell game, but it allows the school to stay open and maintain functionality, while still achieving the goal of creating new teaching spaces.

An Opportunity for Investment 

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In many cases, the potential ripple effects of smart design on the financial well-being of a district are not always immediately visible—the result of a combination of multiple nuanced efficiencies.

An open, creative educational environment increases retention rate in teachers, who represent one of biggest investment made by school districts. Teachers respond to the positive work environment in many of the same ways as students. Happy teachers are better teachers—and a stable faculty saves on recruitment and training costs, a direct impact on the bottom line.

Making the engaged classroom work requires administrators to invest upfront. Students are intuitive; if you put them in the space, they are going to start experimenting and exploring their environment. Additionally, educators must learn to use the space to maximize the teaching opportunities.

It’s essential to devote time and resources to lay the groundwork for the transition and get the most from the investment. Administrators can’t simply announce they are changing classrooms, they need to cultivate early adopters and get them to do it and love it, and let the word spread through the grass roots. That’s when you get buy in and the investment starts to produce results.

Smart design can help that process. It creates the opportunity for the best student outcomes and savings. But there is an education process. It’s often hard for decision-makers to think of design as anything but a commodity, even though it creates real value by allowing educators to effectively utilize their skillsets and maximize the educational opportunities for students.

The financial rewards of next-gen campuses shouldn’t be overlooked. The budget doesn’t have to be the road block for the educational goals. There are tough questions that must be asked. But there is a sweet spot where the goals of educators and financial constraints can meet to create the type of classrooms essential for producing students ready for the modern world.

Lowell Tacker is a principal at LPA San Antonio and the past president of the South Texas Chapter of the Association for Learning Environments (A4LE). 

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