A lesson in design: High-performance schools are the future

Of all the trends that the K-12 market has experienced, there is one that we believe is here to stay and will guide the future of education:  the design and construction of "high-performance" schools that meet the needs of all users.

High-performance schools are facilities that can impact the learning environment in a variety of critical ways including, but not limited to: improving test scores, increasing average daily attendance, reducing operating costs, increasing teacher satisfaction and retention, mitigating liability exposure and reducing environmental impacts.

In order to support school officials in achieving these lofty goals, it is important for architects to manage priorities, time and budget during the design and construction process. But there are other factors at play–including people, environment and technology–that can help shape the success of your next school project.

Below are some key considerations and recommendations: 


• Design with Users’ Needs in Mind: Identifying the underlying physical and psychological aspects that affect the learning experience is step one. This can be accomplished through a variety of advanced research techniques that aim to uncover the spoken and unspoken needs of all users–from students and visitors to teachers and administrators.


• Think Green: Key design elements, such as material use, water management, indoor environmental quality, etc., can impact the environment. These elements should be taken into consideration during the design phase to build a facility that will easily adapt to and accommodate the school’s changing needs.

• Perform an Energy Audit: Working with the appropriate officials to perform an energy audit, an investigation of all facets of a building’s energy use, helps identify areas for energy improvement.  Energy improvements can free up resources by lowering utility bills to fund other enhancements to the learning environment.

• Lead with LEED: As of April 20, 2007, all new construction and major renovations of K-12 school facilities seeking LEED certification must use the LEED for Schools Rating System, the recognized standard for high-performance schools. The LEED for Schools Rating System recognizes the unique nature of the design and construction of K-12 schools.  By addressing the distinct needs of school spaces and children’s health issues, this standard provides a comprehensive tool for schools that wish to build green, with measurable results.


• Factor in Technology: "Classrooms of the future"–a popular catchphrase–embrace the need for and use of technology as an effective learning and productivity tool. While markers, whiteboards and textbooks are still essential tools for education, more and more administrators recognize the important role that technology plays in helping students prepare for the global challenges that lie ahead. To that end, we–as architects–should work closely with school officials to integrate a number of advanced solutions, from technology infrastructure to hardware and software, throughout the entire facility.

Designing schools that enhance the K-12 learning experience and help children reach their ultimate potential has long been a priority for top architecture teams.  Continued collaboration with school officials will help transform the classroom experience for both students and educators well into the future.

John Francona is the senior vice president of the K-12 division at Astorino, an architecture firm in Pittsburgh, Pa.


Audits frustrate e-Rate applicants

Opinions about the management of the federal e-Rate program have improved over the last year, a new survey suggests. But applicants continue to be frustrated by audits, and they’d like to see more transparency in the program.

e-Rate consulting firm Funds for Learning (FFL) released the results of its second annual survey of e-Rate participants June 29. The e-Rate provides $2.25 billion in telecommunications discounts for eligible schools and libraries each year, but keeping track of the program’s many rules and deadlines can pose a challenge to applicants.

Nearly 73 percent of those surveyed who expressed an opinion about the e-Rate’s management gave program administrators a favorable review–up from 65 percent last year. Those who strongly agreed that the e-Rate is well managed increased from 14 percent to 20 percent in the same period, while those who strongly disagreed with this statement dropped from 10 percent to 7 percent.

Four out of five applicants said the e-Rate is meeting its goal of connecting schools and libraries to the internet, and 71 percent said their organization has more classrooms online as a result of the program–up from 59 percent last year. But applicants continue to say the Two-in-Five Rule–which limits a school or library’s receipt of funding for internal connections to twice in a five-year period–is not having its intended effect, which is to allow this funding to reach a greater number of entities.

In last year’s survey, applicants regarded the Bishop Perry Order–a rule change from 2006 that allowed them to make corrections to specific items on their applications, if minor errors are discovered–as the most positive change to the e-Rate program in recent years. This year, however, applicants weren’t quite so enamored with the order. The percentage of respondents who believed Bishop Perry would bring no change to the e-Rate program was 36 percent, up from 25 percent last year.

One applicant noted that even though the Bishop Perry Order allows applicants to correct clerical errors, there is still a "steep price" to pay in terms of the amount of time it takes to see the mistakes rectified. "The ‘reality’ of the Bishop Perry Order may be setting in, making applicants realize that it can’t solve every mistake or error in the e-Rate process," FFL wrote in its survey report.

To guard against potential waste, fraud, and abuse, the Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) of the Universal Service Administrative Co., the agency that administers the e-Rate, conducts numerous audits of program participants. The comments concerning audits in FFL’s survey indicated that most applicants find the audit process arduous and draining on their time and resources. While audits might be a necessary evil, most applicants said the process could be streamlined.

Applicants overwhelmingly agreed that the staff conducting the audits did so in a professional manner. But only 60 percent said they believed those doing the auditing were knowledgeable about the e-Rate’s rules and regulations.

Also, just one in three applicants agreed that the amount of work it takes to respond to an audit is reasonable. One often-cited criticism of the audit process is the amount of time that auditors spend on site. "Auditors can spend up to four weeks, and sometimes longer, at an applicant’s location to perform the field work portion of the review," FFL noted. "Two commenters indicated that the on-site portion of the audit could have been completed within a few days."

Others questioned the need for such an extensive audit when every aspect of the e-Rate process is already closely reviewed, FFL said, while still others complained they’ve been waiting over a year to learn that their audit review is final.


FFL survey

2008 survey (conducted with eSchool News)


Rising enrollments require distance learning

Robert H. Messner, Jr. has watched faculty line up to use video-over-IP distance learning software at Delaware Technical & Community College (DTCC), and as the school’s chief technology officer, he sees this technology as a solution to the exploding enrollment in two-year colleges.

Messner, an IT official at DTCC since 1999, saw his school recognized as one of the tech-savviest community colleges in the nation last year, being named in the Center for Digital Education’s Digital Community Colleges Survey awards. Messner credited the school’s three tiers of "smart classrooms," which let students earn credit in any course via an online course-management system.

The top tier of DTCC’s smart classrooms is video-over-IP classes that let professors teach a subject from any of the college’s four campuses to any student at a DTCC campus.

The convenience of video-over-IP, Messner said, could be a critical tool for community colleges. The current recession has brought millions back to school — mostly to local community colleges — and campuses are struggling to house the growing classes. Some colleges have resorted to 24-hour course schedules, while other campuses have instituted strict enrollment caps.

"It’s certainly going to be the way community colleges deal with their space issues," said Messner, who was named the college’s CTO more than two years ago. "You can essentially make the most out of all the space in the entire state. It really has got to be the way of the future for instruction."

Embracing technology in higher education is largely a generational issue, Messner said. Many members of the college’s 1,000 full-and-part-time faculty have proven to be "early adopters" — using blogs and social networking for distribution of course material — while some professors are receiving essential training in DTCC’s eLearning training courses.

Today’s students, however, require very little preaching on the virtues of classroom technology, he said.

"The key is not to explain technology’s importance, but to determine which technology will best serve them in an environment that is moving rapidly to ‘anytime, anyplace,’" said Messner, 38, who gravitated to the IT field as a high school student enrolled in a data processing class.

Using the Wimba course-management system since last year has helped DTCC slash its travel budget, because faculty members can conduct classes online. When the IT department makes course-management updates, professors are provided with thorough instruction on how to maintain online grade books, for instance.

At a time when community colleges see enrollment numbers reaching all-time highs, Messner said, campus decision makers should invest in technology that lets students hear, see, and interact with instructors from anywhere video-over-IP is available.

"I think a community college is really well-suited for providing faculty with the necessary [technology] tools … because we’re so flexible," as opposed to lumbering giant research universities that must cater to and train thousands of faculty and staff, he said. "We are only limited by the dollars we have available to implement [new technology]."


Delaware Technical & Community College


7 million YouTube hits make kids’ choir famous

A New York fifth-grade chorus has become a world-famous cyber phenomenon touted by top media outlets, celebrities, and politicians, thanks to the online video-sharing web site YouTube.

And yet, the young singers from Public School 22 have rarely left Staten Island, a water-ringed New York City borough reached by ferry from Manhattan.

Much of the credit for the group’s newfound celebrity goes to a music teacher who apparently is a natural at public relations. "A friend in advertising told me that if I ever want to leave teaching, I should come and work for [him]," jokes the children’s music director, Gregg Breinberg.

About three years ago, he taught his kids to sing the group Coldplay’s hit single "Viva la Vida" and posted the performance on YouTube, followed by a performance of a Tori Amos song.

"They’ve reached the world strictly by internet," says Breinberg.

One day, gossip blogger Perez Hilton came across them on YouTube singing the Amos song in a Manhattan atrium–with Amos tearing up as she listened. Hilton was bowled over by the innocent-sounding voices that matched faces exuding energy and personality.

He posted the link on his blog, triggering a deluge of interest that made the clip one of the top 10 most watched YouTube videos recently.

Since then, the P.S. 22 Chorus has been featured on television and in major newspapers, while 7 million viewers (and counting) have watched them on YouTube.

The chorus even popped up on celebrity Ashton Kutcher’s Twitter feed.

"Honestly, I never imagined that things would take off for the chorus the way they have in the last few years," says Breinberg. "But these kids have risen above tremendous obstacles and have made their voices heard."

Other fans include Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac, who invited them to sing at Madison Square Garden. Neil Finn, lead singer for Crowded House, was so enthused by the children’s online performance of his song "Private Universe" that he asked them to perform with him for the band’s sold-out New York show.

But there’s much more to the success of P.S. 22 than brilliant promotion.

Many of the 70 kids come from struggling families, with about three-quarters of them eligible for free school lunches. Others have academic difficulties or are learning English as a second language.

Bypassing traditional children’s music, Breinberg had taught them grown-up songs that speak to their tough urban lives–like The Doors’ "People Are Strange" and Amos’ "Flying Dutchman," which opens with the line: "Hey kid/Got a ride for you."

And the rest is not exactly kid stuff: "They say/Your brain is a comic book tattoo/And you’ll never be anything. … What will you do with your life?/ Is that all you hear from noon till night?"

When 10-year-old Gabriel Vasquez first entered the chorus, "I was scared, I didn’t want nobody to tease me," he says. "But Mr. B taught me how to let out my feelings and not to hold it back in … tears, joy, excitement."

With sometimes aching openness or unbridled joy, they sing about love, loss, belief, and betrayal in music by Amos, Nicks, or even Billie Holliday, linking their own New York world with the whole world.

Breinberg started the elementary school chorus more then a decade ago, persuading the school to create one despite cuts in arts programs.

The children dote on the man they all call "Mr B"–a 36-year-old guitar-strumming teacher with the winning smile who cracks jokes and makes faces for them.

"The most important part of my job is to make the kids love music," he says. "Technique comes later."

In fact, vocal prowess is not the key to their popularity. Most of them have voices like other children their age, with a few exceptions.

"Maybe individually they don’t have that prodigious talent, but when they come together, they work off each other and become bigger than they are individually," says Breinberg. "They’re able to sing very difficult harmonies, already in fifth grade."


PS22 chorus


BYU lifts YouTube ban

Brigham Young University, the Mormon church school where students agree to live a chaste and virtuous life, has lifted its almost three-year policy of blocking students’ access to YouTube.

Administrators lifted the ban on June 26, citing an increasing amount of educational material on the popular video-sharing web site, university spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said.

YouTube has its own filters for pornography, but BYU added it to the list of web sites blocked by campus online filters in 2006 because administrators felt there was too much content that could violate the school’s strict, conservative standards.

The university’s software also blocks pornography, adult content, and violence from other sites.

BYU cited limited bandwidth as another factor when explaining the decision. But some professors have since complained that they couldn’t access relevant YouTube content in the classroom.

"I think there’s no other way but to provide all of it," Jenkins said.

Students and faculty at the university agree to follow the school’s honor code, a list of standards in line with the principles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The code includes provisions against alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine use, among other things. It also specifically labels pornography as taboo.

Also on June 26, BYU launched a new web site–besafe.byu.edu–that explains the school’s internet guidelines and advises readers how to avoid online threats like phishing and viruses.

The site notes that students and faculty at BYU agree to avoid internet content and activities that are not "virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy."


Brigham Young University


Rendell to cut grants to enhance technology

In the ongoing state budget battle, Gov. Ed Rendell has agreed to drop all funding for the four-year-old Classrooms for the Future grant program, which pumped nearly $1.2 million into Luzerne County public schools last year to provide training, computers and other high-tech equipment. Rendell announced an additional $500 million in cuts from his previously proposed budget as he tries to close huge deficit and find common ground with a Republican-controlled Senate critical of his spending plans. While the governor already had slashed large chunks of spending, until now he had largely left education unscathed – save for the highly controversial proposal to close the Scranton State School for the Deaf. The new proposed cuts erase $22 million in the original budget for the Classrooms for the Future Program, first launched in 2006-07 and expanded to include more districts each year.

Click here for the full story


Project seeks to measure ed tech’s value

An ambitious new research project aims to revolutionize education by showing that well-implemented technology initiatives can save states money after an initial investment.

Project RED (for Revolutionizing EDucation) will examine the outcomes of educational technology initiatives using a cost-benefit analysis to determine which ed-tech programs and devices are having the most cost-effective impact for schools, parents, and states.

The project “seeks to define technology models that lead to improvements in student achievement when well implemented,” according to its summary. Project RED is led by ed-tech consulting firms the Hayes Connection and the Greaves Group, as well as the One-To-One Institute.

“The goal is a national study [to] … create a model detailing the technologies that contribute to improved learning [as well as] cost savings,” said Jeanne Hayes of the Hayes Connection.

The project comes at an opportune time for both state leaders and advocates of educational technology, as states are feeling the budget pinch and technology funds are often among the first education-related expenses to be cut. Very little research has been done to show the connection between educational technology and cost savings, Hayes said, adding: “Far too often, only the expense side of the equation receives attention.”

The project’s first phase will gather data from schools that have implemented ubiquitous technology initiatives. Project leaders have a list of approximately 3,000 such schools, which will be narrowed to about 500 schools for research purposes, Hayes said.  The data will be used to develop a framework for determine which programs and services are most effective in raising achievement.

Next, several partner states will join with Project RED to examine larger factors that may be influenced by ed-tech initiatives, such as the cost to society for high school dropouts, credit recovery and remediation costs, and how much money can be saved by using virtual learning.

The project’s final phase will deliver data and findings to stakeholders.

Professional development, online learning, and online credit recovery are three areas in which Hayes said she expects to see a significant return on ed-tech investment.

She said the project will not use any single metric for measuring this return on investment, but instead will apply “some statistical techniques to determine the highest-outcome technology uses” according to a financial model.

For instance, “if a program reduces dropouts by 5 percent, then we will calculate the savings to the state in reduction in costs to support high school dropouts and the revenue enhancement they will incur [through] higher income taxes,” Hayes said.

All of the project’s work will be based on per-student costs and savings, Hayes said, so that the formulas should be applicable in other states or districts using their own calculations on the same issue.

“For example, if professional development online reduces the [average] costs of substitute teachers by three days per teacher, per year, then the cost of that substitute teacher may vary by state or district, but [the savings] can be readily calculated,” she explained.


LEDs light up InfoComm 2009

School administrators, teachers, and professors were among thousands at the InfoComm audio-video conference in Orlando June 15-19, where technology vendors unveiled the latest in digital signage hardware and software and LED projectors that could prove energy and cost efficient.

Projectors powered by LED (Light Emitting Diodes) technology, rather than the traditional lamp, have displayed longer life and usually require less maintenance than lamps, which often need replaced.

Some companies have introduced LED ultra-portable projectors, which weigh less than 4 pounds apiece, but LED projector costs have proven prohibitive during the current recession, according to an industry report published in March by Insight Media. The report said that lamp projectors could remain popular because they are more affordable, especially for schools and universities that have seen operating budgets slashed in 2009.

LED projectors also have fewer lumens of brightness than their lamp-powered counterparts, although lamps are often replaced after about 2,000 hours of use. LED projectors can last for years without replacements or maintenance, according to industry experts and reports. That means schools would be able to save money over time, despite higher initial outlays for the LED product.

LED-powered projectors produce a clear picture because the red, green, and blue colors don’t have to go through a traditional projector’s color wheel. LED projectors turn on and off instantly and don’t require time to warm up or cool down.

Many exhibitors featured the newest digital signage technology, which has become prevalent on some college campuses over the past year. Interactive digital signage screens, such as those on display at InfoComm, could be useful for freshman college students navigating a city-size campus, and facial-recognition technology will help marketers identify who is walking toward a digital sign and tailor advertisements to fit the person’s demographic characteristics.

For example, if a college-aged man walks by a digital sign, the facial-recognition program might generate an ad for shaving cream and razors.

InfoComm officials said the conference’s total attendance reported to be 29,300 eclipsed projected attendance by more than 1,000 persons. InfoComm–which had 850 exhibitors–draws fewer people when it is held on the East Coast, officials said, but this year’s turnout made InfoComm 2009 the largest audio-visual show ever held on the East Coast. Last year, the conference was held in Las Vegas and is scheduled to be held in that city in 2010.

“InfoComm was realistic about the effects of the economy on attendance,” said InfoComm spokeswoman Betsy Jaffe, adding that “there are many corporate-wide and government-wide travel restrictions” that have limited conference attendance this year.

“But for many of our attendees, InfoComm is the only trade show they attend, and they rely on their attendance for education and to make good technology-acquisition decisions.  In some cases, organizations or companies brought fewer people–but the key decision makers were still there.”

(Editor’s note: For complete coverage of InfoComm 2009, visit our InfoComm Conference Information Center at eSN Online: http://www.eschoolnews.com/conference-info/infocomm/.)

News from the exhibit hall

Here’s a roundup of news from the InfoComm exhibit hall, organized by product type. (Just click each category link to view the relevant products and services.)

Acoustics and Audio

Cables, Connectors, and Accessories

Displays, Monitors, and Digital Signage

Document Cameras and Digital Presenters

Intercom and Communication Systems

Media Capture, Storage, and Streaming Systems

Networking Solutions

Projectors, Lamps, and Accessories

Video Conferencing and Collaboration Systems

Video Editing and Production