When modernizing old buildings or designing new ones, school districts should model them after the workplace, make technology centers the focal point, and get input from students, parents, and businesses, according to educators who shared their experiences in an online town meeting sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education (ED).

The meeting, which aired on public broadcast and on the internet, addressed the topic, “Modernizing Schools: Technology and Buildings for a New Century.” The live audience and home viewers were invited to ask questions of panelists, all of whom were experienced at renovating or building schools with technology in mind.

Opening the discussion, Education Secretary Richard Riley said, “We need to equip schools with the latest technology to help teachers and students take full advantage of new and exciting tools for learning.”

We also need to re-imagine schools, he said, increasing their uses by incorporating community technology centers into their design, having them remain open longer, and including all citizens in the school planning and building process.

At first glance, this is not an easy or affordable feat, since American schools are so old.

The United States has 89,000 public schools, 70 percent of which were built before 1970. The average U.S. school is 42 years old. The most recent studies estimate America’s schools need $322 billion in structural improvements, and thousands of additional schools need to be built to accommodate the rising student population.

“We have old buildings,” said Linda Quinn, principal of Emerald Ridge High School in South Hill, Wash. “The wiring is not suitable and even the conditions of the classroom are too cold, too hot, or too damp.”

She added, “We are still using four classrooms constructed in 1916.”

Anthony Amato, superintendent of Hartford Public Schools in Connecticut, said some buildings in his district are 50 years old.

“We had issues with air conditioning, with wiring,” Amato said. “As soon as you poke a hole in the wall, the ‘asbestos police’ show up at your door.”

Creative thinking is necessary when faced with the high costs of installing computer networks in such old buildings, he said.

“Rather than put all of our resources and focus on trying to do what is an almost impossible task, we said, ‘Let’s get out of the box and turn our thinking around,'” Amato said. To avoid exposing asbestos, the district opted for wireless networking with laptop computers.

With its wireless network, students are free to roam anywhere in the school with their mobile computers. As a result, Amato said, both attendance and student work have improved.

Creating a workplace environment

Today’s society needs more graduates with real workforce skills, panelists said. Therefore, some schools are modeling not only the building, but also the curriculum and hours to mirror the typical workplace.

“We know that what students will need to survive [in] university settings or in the workplace is the ability to work in teams,” Quinn said. Her school was designed with workspaces that encourage collaboration. There are “no more chairs and seats bolted to the floor,” she said.

Gary Jacobs, former senior education specialist at Qualcomm Corp., described how a new high school called High Tech High added workplace environments and hours into the school environment.

At this modern facility, located at the Naval Training Center in San Diego, each student has his or her own workstation in addition to classroom, lab, and group workspace. The hours are from 9 to 4, and the day is divided into two blocks instead of 50-minute periods.

“If students feel like they are in a work environment, they’ll feel motivated, they’ll pay attention,” Jacobs said.

High Tech High’s curriculum, which was developed in collaboration with industry partners, is project-based. In one of the projects, students assemble their own computers. These projects interweave three curriculum strands: math, science, and engineering; literacy and humanities; and art and design.

In grades 11 and 12, students attend off-site internships twice a week, reinforcing the school’s emphasis on the high-tech workplace.

“We had to design the school so it looked good, but at the same time you have to get to everything,” Jacobs said. The building’s telecommunications cabling has an open architecture on the outside of the walls, so students can see how it works.

Emerald Ridge High School also uses its building as a teaching tool.

“When we designed our building, we tried to think of it as part of the curriculum,” Quinn said. “It becomes part of the textbook.” For example, she said, the drama students use the light and sound equipment in the auditorium as a hands-on classroom.

Some educators are designing their schools so the technology center is the focal point. “It’ll be the first thing you’ll see when you enter the school,” said Charlotte A. Wright, superintendent of the Weiner, Ark., Public Schools.

Another school used its computer lab to join two parallel hallways, so students would pass through it as they moved around the building. Others created computer-oriented social spaces, such as “cyber cafes.”

“I would like our school to look different. I don’t want Abraham Lincoln, if he were to come back, to recognize it,” Wright said. “A school can no longer be four walls. It has to be there for everybody.”

The technology centers at Weiner Public Schools are equipped with doors and gates so the community can use the computers at night without gaining access to the entire school.

“The modern building: Don’t just think of it as brick and mortar. It’s about clicks and bricks,” Amato said.

Involving the community

In deciding what the modern school should offer and how it should look, the panel agreed that the whole community—including parents, students, and local citizens—should be consulted.

“Don’t underestimate the need for time to plan—time for teachers and administrators and community members to talk together,” Quinn said. “If we don’t do this, we’ll just keep doing what we’ve been doing.”

“We hold hearings in our community. We hold board meetings,” said Reggie Felton of the Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. He said his district balances what the community wants with theory and research.

“It is very, very difficult to meet the demands to make sure every student has access” to modern technologies, Felton said. Often, schools will renovate one building while another becomes obsolete. He said school districts have to use money efficiently to reduce costs and seek federal and state support.

Jacobs said it’s good to involve businesses in the planning process, too, like officials did at High Tech High—especially because high-tech buildings come with high price tags. In addition to eRate funding and other government grants, businesses can help schools pay for technology.

Amato agreed: “Don’t wait for this money to come from any source.” There are innovative ways of getting computers, he said, such as collaborating with a company.

“There are a number of companies that are willing to give free connectivity [to schools]. Ours happens to be HighFusion,” he said.

The online town meeting has been archived and can be seen in its entirety at the web address listed below.

Modernizing Schools: Technology and Buildings for a New Century

http://ali.apple.com/events/edgov0908

High Tech High

http://www.hightechhigh.org

HighFusion

http://www.highfusion.com