The new school’s hallways were empty, save for a quiet custodian wiping tiny black scuff marks from the floor. There were no lockers slamming, no high-pitched giggles, no groups of students shuffling from class to class. Not even a child making a dash to the restroom.

Come to think of it, there were no restrooms.

This is Pembroke Pines, Fla., charter elementary school, one of a new breed of schools designed with a particular interest in how the layout and structure of a school can promote safety and save money.

In this school, each classroom works as a self-contained unit: It has its own bathroom and sink, a bank of computers, a television and a VCR, and a telephone. There is even a mini-library and resource center between every two classrooms.

The idea is to minimize the need for kids to be in the hallways, where there are more opportunities for problems, said Alan Olkes, chief of school operations for Cambridge Academies and a former teacher, principal, administrator, and superintendent in Miami-Dade County public schools.

“It used to be the safest place to be was in school,” Olkes said. “And today, with the incidents around the country, you start to wonder.”

Cambridge Academies builds and manages several charter schools, including the Pembroke Pines charter elementary school and a middle school next door.

In an effort to deter voyeurs and trespassers, the recreational areas at both the schools are built so they’re difficult to see from the road. And the main offices at each school have large windows at the front and only one entrance, to monitor the comings and goings to campus.

At the middle school, students move more freely about the building, but there are adjustments for safety’s sake. For example, there are no lockers, which can be great hiding places for contraband or weapons.

With a fast-growing population and a vast number of schools already overcrowded, the set up of schools such as the charters in Pembroke Pines may be an unattainable goal. Charter schools are funded with state dollars but are run by private individuals, companies, or agencies. Free from many state regulations, they have more flexibility with money, personnel, and curriculum than traditional public schools.

Removing lockers means the schools need two sets of books—one for the classroom and one for home—and that can be expensive.

And a key to the charter schools is keeping the student body and teacher to student ratio low—a near impossible task at some inner-city schools bulging with more than 4,000 students.

Tom Fisher, an architect in Jacksonville who has worked on a number of school projects, said design professionals are challenged now more than ever to find cost-effective, safe ways to build schools—without making them look like prisons.

“That’s really the problem,” he said. “The problem for us as designers is how do we deal with these issues and send a positive message about what schools are?”

The Florida Senate recently sent a committee around the state to hold public hearings on the issue of school safety. At the meeting in Miami, Olkes told the lawmakers some of the basic ways a building can be changed are inexpensive, though sometimes unpopular. For example, take the doors off bathroom stalls, or eliminate the faculty restrooms so the adults and students have to share.

He also said there should be an emergency call button in each classroom. Those systems are in place at the Pembroke Pines schools.

“If you have a student who is acting up, seriously acting up, you don’t want to be yelling up to a speaker on the wall,” he said.

Adding these safety components does not necessarily mean boosting the cost of the school. The Pembroke Pines charters were built for about $8,800 per student position; the typical cost is about $13,000 per student, he said.

Some places have taken security to an extreme. A high school being built in Broward County on 80 acres is surrounded by canals.

“It’s almost like a moat,” Olkes said. “Unless someone wants to swim the moat, the only way they’re going to get in is through the gate.”

Like Fisher, though, Olkes echoed the need for a school to feel welcoming and inclusive, and not like an institution.

“It’s a real challenge, there’s no doubt about it,” he said. “It’s a challenge to do that in the context of security. You want to do a school that you’d be happy to send your child to.” n

Links:

Pembroke Pines Charter School, 10100 Pines Blvd., Pembroke Pines, FL 33026; (954) 435-6529, http://www.putergirl.com/ppcs/welcome.htm.