Skip

Wayside School Is Not Funny In Real Life
August 18, 2011 9:56 AM   Subscribe

In 1972, Washington, DC opened the doors to the HD Woodson Senior High School. It was the city's first new school in twelve years, and the first to be constructed after riots devastated the city in 1968. Like its sister school across town, it had been built to withstand another riot, and protect its students within its fortress-like walls. For a time, it stood as the pride and joy of the city's school system, featuring a diverse range of academic and vocational programs in a state of the art 8-story building complete with escalators, science labs, and a six-lane pool; a symbol of hope for a downtrodden community. By 2008, however, things had gone horribly, horribly wrong. The building was literally crumbling, many of its original facilities had closed due to neglect, only 13% of sophomores were proficient in reading or mathematics, and violence was a daily concern. Facing no other choice, the city closed the school in 2008, and demolished the brutalist structure shortly thereafter.

After a three year series of delays, next week, students will begin classes in the newly reconstructed HD Woodson High School; a 3-story state of the art building complete with elevators, science labs, and an eight-lane pool; a symbol of hope for a downtrodden community -- leading many to question: Will it work this time? The correlation between architecture and academic performance is not well-studied, and previous efforts have been inconclusive at best.
posted by schmod (49 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
What a waste, as if architecture can hugely compensate for things like hunger; poor home vigilance and parental follow up; gang culture born of ignorance and bred of poverty, etc. This entire effort is little more than *fail*, and a waste of taxpayer money - all under the guise of claiming to want to educate those who have been relegated to the fringes of our society by conditions that are largely out of their control. Pretty buildings with lots of glass and fancy facilities don't compensate for the sheer decades of neglect experienced by poor American communities.

You want to educate people? *Immediately* dispense with the 1890's model of K12 management and administration that continues the American K12 charade - the charade that leaves students behind and results in one of the worst K12 structures in the developed world.

How about developing an instructional system that is based on knowledge management principles that have been in vogue, worldwide, for decades, instead of wasting our resources and young minds inside what amounts to little more than a building that some politician or K12 Superintendent can get a sound bite from.

Incidentally, this isn't only true of D.C.; it's true of all urban schools in America, and lots of suburban and rural schools, too. It's not the architecture; it's not the teachers; "it's the *management system*, stupid!".
posted by Vibrissae at 10:16 AM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


I student-taught in our local sixties fortress high school - and the experience put me off teaching permanently. I have no idea whether you get technically better outcomes from more humane architecture - maybe grades and learning are too complex to be influenced that way. But I don't believe that anyone should have to spend 8 hours a day for four years in a lightless concrete bunker that's damp in winter and to which access is tightly, tightly restricted. The honors classes were in rooms that had one little vertical sliver of translucent glass brick for a "window" for the whole room; the lowest-achieving kids were two-classes-to-a-room in the basement. The kids could only come in one door and had to go through this elaborate check-point charlie routine. All the teachers had this hearty-prison-warden mien, like they expected the kids to be bad but were going to use "character" to stop them - just an incredibly adversarial, wary feeling in that school.

I hated my high school, sure, but it wasn't like that - it had lots of windows and a nice courtyard and it wasn't low-ceilinged and built on the concrete-cheap. I have plenty of pleasant memories of being at my school, sitting in the library (which was large and nice) or walking through the courtyard. And my pervasive memory of the school was how everywhere was well-lit by regular old daylight.

At the school where I student-taught, my supervising teacher (in the basement room) would not let me turn on all the lights. Too much light, you see, made the low-income mostly-minority students 'restless'.

Again, I absolutely hated my peers and will never go back to where I grew up, but I have to say that youth are not treated with very much trust or respect in this country, even when they're indulged with various toys.
posted by Frowner at 10:18 AM on August 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


Man, that was an awful building. The new one looks nice. You could probably (if you tried) make similar arguments against some of the prettier buildings the articles compare Woodson to. I went to Wilson, and it was a lovely old building, but even lovely old buildings fall apart if not maintained properly, and it had it's own serious safety issues. And that was on the side of town with money.

Vibrissae: the old building was clearly actively dangerous and inhibiting education. They needed a new building. Why not make it nice and conducive to education? Of course that's not a replacement for the actual education, but children aren't stupid. If you put them in an unsafe building that looks like a prison and tell them you give a shit about their education, they won't believe you. And they'd be right not to.
posted by feckless at 10:24 AM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, these fortress schools weren't built -as the linked article misleadingly says - to protect students from riots; they were built to control students and keep them from rioting, so students were figured as potential rioters first and citizens second. It's no coincidence that most of these prison schools got built in low income areas and communities of color.
posted by Frowner at 10:25 AM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Shortly after I graduated high school (early 2000s) my mom served on a parent's committee helping plan the design of a new high school for the county. Apparently a major point of controversy was whether to add a partial second floor to the building because stairwells are apparently considered particularly bad from a student discipline perspective.I can only imagine the horror a nine story building would have generated.
posted by ghharr at 10:25 AM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


The correlation between architecture and academic performance is not well-studied, and previous efforts have been inconclusive at best.

I'll admit this is anecdotal evidence at best. But -- my junior high was in the old high school building, something which had been the high school when my father was a freshman. It hadn't had any major structural, aesthetic, or other repairs in the years since, except when the town had to comply with one or another federal or state standard (they built a ramp leading up to the auditorium to comply with "disabled access" -- but did nothing about the fact that one had to go up or down stairs to get from the auditorium to the entire rest of the school). Whenever they had to provide specialized classes for ESL students, students with learning disabilities, or suchlike, they would carve out a new room by bricking up one of the alcoves in one of the hallways -- the alcoves which lead to the bathrooms. Or, they'd erect a wall down the middle of an existing room. "Fire escapes" on the second and third floors were provided by swimming pool ladders the janitor affixed to the walls below each window facing the roof of the building next door, even though each window could only be opened 18 inches. At some point they "installed" new carpet by just slapping it down over the old -- and the first time they tried to clean it in one hallway, it seeped into the old carpet and caused a hideous mold problem, which they "fixed" by ripping up all the carpet and leaving the bare cement. They avoided it in all other areas by never cleaning the new carpet.

There were other positive things, to be sure; a fairly cool library, a pool, and a music program which absolutely saved my ass and my sanity. But all those things were in a crumbling building with slipshod safety and access, lots of rooms with no windows at all, and a faint but persistent funk. It took the threat of "a year from now the state is going to close us down because this doesn't fit fire safety codes for schools any more" to get the local taxpayers' advocacy grumps to agree to build a new facility (about a year after I was already out of college, but I followed the case with interest).

I can't speak to whether academics would or would not have improved. But I'll tell you, being a student in the new building would have kept me from feeling like my town made me go to school in a dump because they didn't give a shit about me. And if a kid has that impression about his school, that in and of itself is bound to influence things, I'd wager.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:27 AM on August 18, 2011 [5 favorites]


My wife briefly taught in a "school without walls," which is to a say a school where the different classrooms were divided by nothing more than low bookshelves, and each floor was one open room (with no windows incidentally). It's a shockingly terrible design that makes classroom management impossible, to say nothing of the soul crushing. So, yeah, it's not always a choice between architecture and education, the two are pretty tied together.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 10:35 AM on August 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


What a waste

I'd agree, but man, most US public schools built the last 60 years or so are so terrible and poorly designed, I'd be kind of disappointed to learn our stock of sprawling cookie-cutter learning complexes aren't causing a negative effect on those interned. I think living and working in pleasant settings can have a real effect on people, and generally it'd be nice if we could go back to building places we can be proud of in the US. I get the impression most school installations don't really involve architects anymore.
posted by floam at 10:38 AM on August 18, 2011


I went to Wilson, and it was a lovely old building, but even lovely old buildings fall apart if not maintained properly, and it had it's own serious safety issues. And that was on the side of town with money.

Wilson is currently getting a complete renovation and a new wing, scheduled to be finished this fall. I use the pool there fairly regularly and, at least from the outside, it's looking much better.
posted by ryanshepard at 10:43 AM on August 18, 2011


I was involved in a visioning committee for some new buildings and I was seriously hampered in my arguments for more open space and better design by the lack of empirical studies done on its effects.

This seems strange because everyone from Kirkbride with his asylums, Disneyland and every civic planner in the last 1000 years knows that there is an effect.

I think when the science really gets going we are going to find that we are all much happier in forests with lots of waterfalls.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 10:44 AM on August 18, 2011


Do we need a psychology study to tell us the kids are better off studying in a structure that doesn't suck?

I think schools should be built to look good and feel good to the students, on general principle.
posted by ocschwar at 10:44 AM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


related: riot arcitecture of flint, Mi.

The old AC Admin bldg on dort hwy, now torn down, had a simple design. Here is the exact same arcitecture that was used just blocks away from the old site.
posted by clavdivs at 10:49 AM on August 18, 2011


ryanshepard: wow, that's purty. i'm retroactively jealous or something. imagine actually using that central courtyard instead of just having it be a place for mrs. [redacted] to lean out and smoke her ciggies during English class. With her remaining 1/2 of a lung.

Anyway! Enough of a NW derail. It's good to see Woodson getting a new building. I hope the rest of the schools are at least getting renovations. For the skeptical, imagine how much time & energy the administration & teachers waste dealing with the effects of issues w/ the building that they could put to education time.

There is also the larger US story of "we are crappy at infrastructure now". But that's just a depressing story.
posted by feckless at 10:55 AM on August 18, 2011


I've got to say i like the way i've seen Japanese schools work where students have a "home room" and the teachers move as classes change. They also clean them, take care of them, etc. giving a sense of "this is my room", probably something the poorer areas don't even have at home.

"it's the *management system*, stupid!"

Oh dear god, more "no child left behind" crap? Putting business people in schools to run them like that? I sure hope not, because that is so beyond broken. For profit schools are some of the worst around.

Fixing schools and students (saw a statistic the other day that only 30% of students (too tired to go look it up, irony, heh) passed college science and math entrance tests.) is not a simple game of blaming teachers, unions, buildings, etc. but deeper additional factors of culture at large and class issues. Toss in private schools, public, and home schooling, and this is something that would take society at large to change, meaning it probably won't be.
posted by usagizero at 11:07 AM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


1) OP request: If you want to discuss ed policy, please try to stay on topic. If you want to discuss education management reform or NCLB, I'm sure that you can make a much better FPP about that yourself.

2) I'm pretty sure the new Wilson pool is done, and supposedly very nice? I haven't been up that way in ages, but I've heard rave reviews about all the new DCPR pools that have opened in the past decade.

3) In any event, the Williams and Fenty administration were actually fantastic about infrastructure upgrades and repairs, when no other state/local government in the US was really giving a shit about that topic. Yeah, our taxes went up, but we got a lot of very nice things for the money. (Now, where's my streetcar, Mayor Gray?)

4) I went to High School in a 1970 building that also had few windows, and was (in its early days) called "The Factory on the Hill," because it was a mostly-windowless brown box built into the side of a hill (facing west; there was no A/C; sweet jesus).

I'm not quite sure how the architects ever justified that design, apart from the fact that it must have been fairly energy-efficient, and I believe that there was an emphasis on the teacher's ability to control their learning environment (by turning out the lights?). Riots weren't a concern. The town was thoroughly rural at the time. Over the years, as money's become available, they've been cutting holes in the sides to install windows.

The story/legend behind the school's genesis was fairly amusing too. The school went through no fewer than 3 distinct design iterations. The first would have been a modern, but thoroughly handsome building. By the time enrollment projections had come around, it was determined that the building was far too large, and a second, smaller design was produced, at which point funding was cut back, and enrollment projections revised upward again. A third building was designed to meet these criteria, which follows the design of what actually got built in 1970.

Unfortunately, as preparations were underway to begin construction, the cost of materials rose sharply. The budget was already perilously tight from paying the architect to design 3 schools, and the project was many years behind schedule; minor revisions were made: hallways were made narrower, no cafeteria was built, and every lateral dimension in the building was reduced by 10%, which achieved the goal of shrinking the budget without significantly reducing capacity or requiring a redesign. They literally took the old drawings, and pasted a new scale on top.

Naturally, this resulted in a rather odd building, where classrooms weren't exactly cramped, but also felt just slightly smaller than they should have been. Stairwells were too narrow, the ceilings felt a bit too high, and the toilet stalls were terrifyingly narrow. They knew not to shrink the size of the basketball court in gym, but this simply meant that the court ran right up to the edge of the walls.
posted by schmod at 11:12 AM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


And while that new building is pretty nice, and just avoiding the icky template the majority of schools seem to follow is a win, I think it's kinda soulless. I think we should just be giving the nice old early 20th century buildings renovations to get them seismically sound and energy efficient, looking like they did when they were new. I want more Hogwarts, less office park/minimum security lockup.

Not sure how universal this is across the US, but here (Portland, OR) this is what the schools were like before WW2: posted by floam at 11:16 AM on August 18, 2011


Do we need a psychology study to tell us the kids are better off studying in a structure that doesn't suck?

I think schools should be built to look good and feel good to the students, on general principle.


It is not required to back up your personal opinion with any sort of evidence. But it helps.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 11:17 AM on August 18, 2011


I'm pretty sure the new Wilson pool is done, and supposedly very nice? I haven't been up that way in ages, but I've heard rave reviews about all the new DCPR pools that have opened in the past decade.

Wilson Aquatic Center opened two years ago, and it's beautiful - one of a handful of things the Fenty administration did right.
posted by ryanshepard at 11:18 AM on August 18, 2011


Using brutalist architecture for buildings meant for young adults is probably one of the worst ideas anyone has ever had in the history of educational architecture. Illinois State University (of interest to MeFites because David Foster Wallace taught there for several years) has some particularly egregious examples, which are not only ugly but badly built--the lowest level of the library suffers from leaks from the adjoining plaza whenever it rains, and Watterson Towers, probably the most prominent landmark in Bloomington/Normal, had many problems after it opened. I've been in it, and it reminded me strongly of the campus building in Neal Stephenson's The Big U.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:23 AM on August 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


My wife briefly taught in a "school without walls," which is to a say a school where the different classrooms were divided by nothing more than low bookshelves, and each floor was one open room (with no windows incidentally). It's a shockingly terrible design that makes classroom management impossible, to say nothing of the soul crushing.

I went to a high school like this, and it was awful.
posted by rollbiz at 11:29 AM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Goddamn brutalism.

Went to a high school built in the late 60s that was a weird hybrid: one half of the street was a 3-story concrete monstrosity with all exterior hallways and narrow windows next to the doors for the only natural light, plus an elevator for disabled/pregnant teachers & students, which broke down on a regular basis. The other half was a sprawling complex of little building connected by covered walkways, with a koi pond in one courtyard. Always preferred classes on that side. (Although apparently C Campus was replaced with a brand-new "middle school complex" this year.) Also: no auditorium, instead an outdoor amphitheater & a gym.

Worked in a massive concrete building at a community college for six years, and good heavens was that a depressing place to work. So many rooms with no windows whatsoever! And because of the way it had been built, it was impossible to get consistent or appropriate heating and cooling: inaccessible pipes combined with big spaces that were cut up into little ones. And for bonus points, it was nightmarish to get from one end to the other if you couldn't take the stairs. Six months of a bum knee (PT said no stairs) about drove me crazy, I can't imagine how much it sucked for disabled students.
posted by epersonae at 11:40 AM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


So many rooms with no windows whatsoever!

I always imagined my high school was nicer before they covered up all of the windows in the name of energy efficiency.
posted by MikeMc at 11:52 AM on August 18, 2011


I miss my HS. It had 2 floors (one was this mauveish color and the other was almost a teal blue) and each classroom was done in subtle shades of green, pink, blue, or grey. We also had round tables in the cafeteria and a bitchin courtyard.

Then again, it was a brand new school and our principle was an art major who basically told the county that they could shove their beige color scheme and prison tables up their ass.
posted by sperose at 11:54 AM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


This whole situation is reminiscent of Pruitt-Igoe. In The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (which by the way is partly the creation of Mefite jjjjjjjijjjjjjj!), the documentarians' thesis is that the original architecture had an inconclusive and probably negligible hand in the project's metaphorical and physical collapse as compared to the harm caused by the lack of continued upkeep and maintenance. By all accounts it sounds like H.D. Woodson High School suffered from the same miscalculation. People build these things as statements and "beacons," and they meet that standard for a little while, but then the budget for keeping them that way dries up. Afterwards everyone assumes that the project was flawed in its very essence, I guess to avoid thinking about the uncomfortable possibility that the project could have been a great success if it hadn't been slowly strangled to death.
posted by invitapriore at 12:00 PM on August 18, 2011 [2 favorites]




Whenever someone says "Hey! You know what would look great here? Exposed raw concrete!" I feel that they should be restrained and placed in a safe place for their safety and the safety of the people around them. Honestly, it works so rarely that it's insane to go there.

And DC is very, very bad about this. My favorite example is the UDC campus in Van Ness, particularly the law library. The law library ceiling is exposed concrete, with lamps hanging from it. And law students *live* in their libraries - which means the UDC kids basically live in a bunker. Poor bastards.

The funny thing is that UDC is only a few blocks away from Howard's law school - and the library there is gorgeous beyond belief. Honestly, Howard has problems, but that law library looks *exactly* like what you'd expect a law libary to look like - plenty of daylight, open space, and so on.
posted by Mr. Excellent at 12:03 PM on August 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


My high school was fairly pragmatic. Thank gods for that.
posted by ZeusHumms at 12:08 PM on August 18, 2011


I served on the building committee for my school board the past couple years. There ARE studies about at least some things increasing student achievement -- greenery helps. Natural light helps quite a bit. But I can tell you, we're a poor district, and neither our board nor our teachers nor our architects nor our community wants an ugly cinderblock fortress.

We had one of our buildings retrofitted, after a fire, to have considerably more natural light and to have natural-light-like LED lights. Not rebuilt, just retrofitted. The difference is AMAZING. Walking into that building was depressing as all get-out, and it wasn't any different from any other 60s school. It was just so dark. It felt small and low and sad. Now it's so bright on the inside, coming in is cheerful. The classrooms are MUCH brighter. They FEEL larger. The teachers tell us that their students pay attention longer into the day, their attention spans are better for longer lessons. The teachers have mentioned over and over that THEY like being there better. The students are happier and better behaved in the hallways -- they're more high-spirited, so a bit rambunctious, but there's less fighting.

The schools we've opened more recently, with an abundance of light, the incorporation of outdoor spaces, good airflow, etc., just feel so much nicer to be in ... students have been lingering longer at after-school tutoring, study hall, library hours, etc., because it's a pleasant environment. So I think that helps too.

That said, the most important features are classrooms functional for teaching, working HVAC, and adequate bathroom facilities scaled to the students. (Converting an elementary school into a high school or vice versa is hella expensive partly because you have to renovate all the bathrooms!) Looking good is an afterthought. THAT said, our architects are mostly awesome about working with our budget to make a school that looks good and feels inviting while accomplishing all the functional goals as well.

Also, we actually do have a panopticon in one of our schools. It was built shortly after the changes in the law required all students, even the most profoundly disabled, be allowed to attend public schools. This is literally a round building with small, open "cells" around the edge, with a central "tower" where a single overseer can see all the "cells" at once. It was built for (and is still used for) the "severe and profound" students. (Students who are so severely physically disabled they require constant medical care and who are too mentally disabled to learn.) It is alllll concrete, though we renovated it last year to pull in natural light via skylights, which helps a lot. It actually works reasonably well; they use about half the panopticon for storage, a couple of the cells as classrooms, and a couple of the cells as medical rooms where they can pull the curtain shut for privacy. The open plan allows some separation in the cells, but lets aides and teachers move freely and the kids to see each other, which apparently is good. Also over the decades the cells in use have been decorated so they're bright and cheerful (the unused cells with storage are seriously like prison cells). Nobody's used the tower in two decades; they store phys ed equipment in it. Still WE HAVE AN ACTUAL PANOPTICON. Oy.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:17 PM on August 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


I can't get past this: the 8-floor building had one escalator. One. Going up in the mornings, down in the afternoons.

The rest of it, I can kinda see. It was a matter of lack of foresight, changing aesthetics, etc. But one escalator!? How do you make a mistake like that? How do you fail to see that maybe people will have need to go down while others go up, or vice versa? How does anyone possibly think that could work!?

I'm going to be bothered by this for a while now. One escalator. Geez.
posted by meese at 12:23 PM on August 18, 2011


Howard Woodson's my great-grandfather.

ObBrutalism:
> Exposed raw concrete![....] it works so rarely that it's insane to go there.

Grinnell College's Burling Library's structure is exposed raw concrete, but huge windows make it nice inside. The Forum also uses large windows and also wood beams and roofs to set off the concrete.

However, Norris Hall tried to use the brick of the 19th century buildings on campus to set off the concrete & it doesn't work at all.

Hampshire College also tried to do the brick thing on their central campus mega building and it fails in four stories. God, even Amherst is mixing their old ivy with concrete.

So, yeah, rare/insane unless you make it an energy sieve.
posted by morganw at 12:47 PM on August 18, 2011


It is not required to back up your personal opinion with any sort of evidence. But it helps.

Huh. Well, although I'm an adult now, I don't think I have an actually lower tolerance for lousy working conditions than I did when I was in high school. And I had a job in a small windowless office for four years - in many respects a very good job. Same job got moved to a room with a large window and a nice view. Suddenly, I'm much more productive, have less ennui and less stress, plus I just feel happier looking out at the weather. I'm not really sure why we assume that adults who hate working in low-ceilinged windowless concrete spaces are fussier than kids. If anything, I can sit still in a windowless concrete room a lot better now, since I'm getting paid and not getting bullied.
posted by Frowner at 12:48 PM on August 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm pretty sure it was 10th grade swimming class at the old Wilson pool that put me off swimming forever. Sorry. Just had to get that out.
posted by jindc at 1:07 PM on August 18, 2011


jindc - I didn't mind the old pool. I was on swim team for a while (terrible at it) and senior year I got credit for "assisting" the swim teacher, which mostly consisted of fetching lunch for him at McD's.

actually, swim team was probably the main reason i ever visited other d.c. high schools -- or, at least, the ones that had pools.
posted by feckless at 1:31 PM on August 18, 2011


School districts should really consider leasing space from private developers. School districts are in the business of educating kids; they're not in the business of building, maintaining, and securing huge old buildings, which they're frankly terrible at. Basically every school district has schools operating at two or three times their design capacity, or with lead in the water because they can't afford to replace old plumbing, or that don't have adequate HVAC or electrical or networking, or that don't meet structural integrity standards so they'll fall down in the next earthquake. Private landlords would have to comply with building codes at a minimum, and could face losing tenants if their facilities weren't good enough.

Then there's the absurd nature of government accounting: the government doesn't have any idea of "capital expenditure," so the only way to carry money from year to year is through passing bonding bills. Bonding bills are highly unpopular, which means schools aren't renovated except when the situation is truly dire. It would be far simpler to allocate $500/year/student or whatever to pay for facilities, and build that into the budget as a recurring expense.
posted by miyabo at 1:52 PM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


basically live in a bunker.

The thing that got me recently, is that while brutalist structures look link bunkers, with that purely functional, heavy massing of concrete throughout — often it's just deliberate decoration. There's an old ugly federal building nearby they're gutting down to the beams and rebuilding, but watching it progress I was taken by how hollow and cosmetic the brutalist skin was. I should have known better but I kind of figured I was looking at solid concrete.
posted by floam at 2:00 PM on August 18, 2011


Doh, I screwed up the only important link.
posted by floam at 2:02 PM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


My HS had a pool--outdoors, in one of those inflatable bubbles. Heated BWAHAAHAAHAA so that's OK. Anyone who thinks it doesn't get cold in Georgia has never come to school at 6 AM and broken through a skin of ice before you can swim your laps.
posted by jfuller at 2:08 PM on August 18, 2011


the original architecture had an inconclusive and probably negligible hand in the project's metaphorical and physical collapse as compared to the harm caused by the lack of continued upkeep and maintenance

Even if the issue is upkeep and maintenance, architecture plays a roll in that. The school sounds like it was built as much as a symbol as a building. And so, impractically, it It was built high, instead of wide, in order to stand out from the landscape. It was filled with bells and whistles, but bells and whistles that would require a lot of labor and cost to maintain: a pool, a greenhouse, elevators, escalators, a novel heating system. The general physical traits that would determine students' experience—the ease of getting around, the availability of natural light, the HVAC systems, the plumbing—were not the proirity. And so the building was built for its own sake, with little consideration of how it would be maintained in the decades to come, or how the exterior would wear, or what students' day-to-day experience would be, or how well it could be adapted, should the school's needs or mission change.

If the original design that is costly and difficult to maintain, then it might be partly to blame with regard to the lack of continued upkeep and maintenance.

I kind of hate Butalist architecture in general. Brutalist buildings have always struck me as imposing monoliths that are blatantly out of human scale, and which turn a cold shoulder to human need. Yick.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 2:31 PM on August 18, 2011


Oh jeebus, copy editing fail. Sorry. Should be, "impractically, it was built high," and "If the original design is costly."
posted by evidenceofabsence at 2:34 PM on August 18, 2011


School districts should really consider leasing space from private developers. School districts are in the business of educating kids; they're not in the business of building, maintaining, and securing huge old buildings, which they're frankly terrible at. Basically every school district has schools operating at two or three times their design capacity, or with lead in the water because they can't afford to replace old plumbing, or that don't have adequate HVAC or electrical or networking, or that don't meet structural integrity standards so they'll fall down in the next earthquake.

I don't think it would work: you have a density of occupation problem (a high school requires much more toilets/sq. ft. than an office building or a mall), and a special needs problem (you can't put a chemistry lab with gas burners and sulfuric acid and keep your office occupancy), and the sports thing (you can't put a gymnasium in your typical office building).
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 2:58 PM on August 18, 2011


miyabo, let me correct a couple of misconceptions in your post. Now, this won't be exactly the same in every state, but it's similar in many:

"or with lead in the water because they can't afford to replace old plumbing, or that don't have adequate HVAC or electrical or networking, or that don't meet structural integrity standards so they'll fall down in the next earthquake. Private landlords would have to comply with building codes at a minimum, and could face losing tenants if their facilities weren't good enough."

We actually have to comply with more stringent building codes than private developers or homeowners; there is a separate state code for school buildings, and we are required to resurvey the buildings every 10 years with specialists, submit the findings to the regional or state board, which tells us what must be corrected to come up to code (we have to come up to the latest code in many areas), do the repairs/upgrades, and then have it certified that we did so. In my state this is called Health/Life-Safety.

To begin answering the funding part of the question, our levy is broken down into about 11 parts. The "Ed fund" is the largest part of the levy, which covers teachers, student supplies, textbooks, etc. We also levy specifically for Health/Life-Safety (which actually has a complicated bond-related funding mechanism, but that's not important). This can only be used for HLS upgrades, though, not "oooh, pretty" renovations. (Though sometime an HLS upgrade can also be "ooooh, pretty.") Also: "It would be far simpler to allocate $500/year/student or whatever to pay for facilities, and build that into the budget as a recurring expense." We do that. We levy into ANOTHER fund called "buildings and grounds" that pays for ongoing maintenance, repair, and (ideally) upgrade. (We also levy into a tort fund for lawsuits, into a fund for transportation, etc.) Each of these funds is levied separately, each has its own rules (Tort is uncapped; Ed can only rise at a certain rate without a public vote; HLS is treated as a capital funding; etc.). The funding problem in my state is a combination of a) low property values in urban districts with a lot of older legacy schools; b) periodic capping of levy increases at well below the rate of inflation, making us do more with less over time, since that compounds; and c) complicated state and federal funding systems and rules, since we're not entirely locally funded (of course). We're required by law to levy into these specified funds, and we're required by law to use the money ONLY for those things. So, yes, we always have a buildings budget. No, it isn't big enough.

"School districts should really consider leasing space from private developers."

What incentive would a private developer have to come up to a more stringent building code? Also, what private developer would be willing to build in special child-sized restrooms to meet the law for restroom availability for short people? Would they build a bathroom into each of our kindergarten rooms, as required? Would they be willing to conform to DCFS rules for our younger students? Could they accommodate special ed needs? Can they provide an industrial kitchen that meets federal rules for school food preparation? None of this is something a private developer wants to deal with -- special bathrooms, special classrooms, higher building codes, routine state inspections, etc. Moreover, it costs us considerably less to maintain our own buildings (CONSIDERABLY less) than it would cost to lease a comparable amount of space from private developers, even before we get into all the bathroom and code issues. Even though a lot of our buildings are 100 years old and spendy to heat (in particular). Because developers make a profit. We don't.

But beyond that, I can't really even think of local developments that could accommodate the NUMBER of students we have.

It's not only us. Private and charter schools routinely want to purchase our old buildings (that we've decided are too expensive to maintain) because it's MUCH cheaper for them to own and run their own buildings than to lease space. Privates and charters also often want to lease from us, if we have the empty space, because that can be even cheaper (since they can use our maintenance staff for some things). We also get a lot of inquiries into purchasing decommissioned buildings from churches, charities, office developers (who want to use the existing building), park districts, libraries, etc. (And some inquirers who want to knock things down, too, but plenty who want to use the building as-is.)

"Basically every school district has schools operating at two or three times their design capacity"

A lot of this is because humans move and buildings don't. We had twice the high school capacity necessary for our district at four high schools spaced pretty evenly around the city, but movement of families over 60+ years meant that one of our high schools was stuffed to the gills and overflowing into trailers while two others were rattling around half-empty. That could be minimally solved by renting from private developers (although developments with available space won't necessarily be where they student are either, raising transportation budgets), but why would they invest in kindergartener-sized toilets only to have the school move out and render those toilets useless a couple years later when the population shifts again?

Of course you also typically need a recess area, playing fields, a lunchroom, a gymnasium, specialized classrooms (computers, drivers' ed, science labs), a library, etc., that a private developer probably couldn't provide without considerable expense, if at all.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:07 PM on August 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


School districts should really consider leasing space from private developers. School districts are in the business of educating kids; they're not in the business of building, maintaining, and securing huge old buildings, which they're frankly terrible at. Basically every school district has schools operating at two or three times their design capacity, or with lead in the water because they can't afford to replace old plumbing, or that don't have adequate HVAC or electrical or networking, or that don't meet structural integrity standards so they'll fall down in the next earthquake.

It's not exactly the same thing, but under the Governator, California considered selling off some of its administrative buildings and then promptly leasing them back. Didn't really see any reason to do it besides a baldfaced moneygrab, and Jerry Brown thankfully put the kibosh on that not long after becoming governor.
posted by entropicamericana at 3:15 PM on August 18, 2011


Eyebrows, I'm deeply impressed by your response. I'm sure that professional education administrators have considered leasing space and dismissed it, probably for the same reasons you described.

I'd rather people think of a school as a bunch of teachers teaching a bunch of students, rather than a particular location with a particular style of building on it. When facilities get as bad as the ones described in the article,* almost any place -- even a converted cubicle farm or big-box store -- are options worth considering.

* (My high school had no potable water due to lead contamination, had no cafeteria or library or women's changing room for the gym, and had several "temporary" portable classrooms that were 70 years old.)
posted by miyabo at 4:11 PM on August 18, 2011


I'd rather people think of a school as a bunch of teachers teaching a bunch of students, rather than a particular location with a particular style of building on it.

And I'd like to think of a Hospital as a bunch of doctors treating a bunch of sick people.

However, I'm pretty glad that I'm not being operated on in an apartment building, or behind the meat counter of an unused grocery store, just because it was cheaper than building a real hospital.

You can't just pick a building, and shoehorn 'X' into it at zero cost, and expect things to work perfectly. Among other things, that's why architects (even bad ones) exist. Buildings function when they are designed and built according to what they are going to be used for.

And, yes, you can count flexibility and future-proofing are counted as part of these requirements. Coincidentally, while much of Woodson's architecture was specialized and extremely inflexible, Dunbar and many other schools of its vintage suffered from being too 'flexible', with confusing open-space plans that used flimsy walls that weren't adequately soundproofed, and never actually ended up being modified from their original configuration.

Coincidentally, elsewhere in Northeast DC, there are a bunch of architects doing some pretty interesting things in recent years at Gallaudet University (the largest university for the deaf and hard of hearing in America). When you remove soundproofing as a necessary attribute for an academic building, and stress the importance of good sight-lines and open spaces, you can come up with some pretty interesting/innovative designs. There's a good case study about this somewhere, and I can't seem to dig up a link, but I digress...

I worked in one of these semi-open-plan schools, and always commented that the building appeared to have been designed with its own demolition in mind. Thanks to the fact that every interior wall was 'temporary,' you'd be able to knock the building to the ground and cart the debris away in an afternoon.

Also, the concrete block schools built in the 1940s-1950s turned out to be fairly flexible, despite not being designed for that purpose. They're still ugly as a sin, but were generally a lot more functional, and have adapted well to modern uses. Moving/removing a non-load-bearing concrete block wall is messy, but pretty cheap. Also, that sort of architecture lasts virtually forever.
posted by schmod at 5:44 PM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


"I'd rather people think of a school as a bunch of teachers teaching a bunch of students, rather than a particular location with a particular style of building on it. When facilities get as bad as the ones described in the article,* almost any place -- even a converted cubicle farm or big-box store -- are options worth considering."

Yeah, there are certainly buildings that shouldn't be in use at all, and there is certainly bad mismanagement out there. (We look at some apparently boneheaded moves from 30 years ago, and some of them we say "that was just dumb" and others we say, "If we knew that X, then we wouldn't have Y, but at the time it seemed like such a good idea ...")

It's also a lot easier to put high school students into a big-box store or converted cube farm, at least temporarily (you'd miss science labs and so on after a while) ... requirements for elementary schools, particularly the plumbing issues, and the kindergarten rooms, and so forth, are considerably more difficult to meet "off the shelf." In fact, we have a small high school program (for kids who struggle in a traditional setting) in what used to be a small government office building; conference rooms became classrooms, offices got put together into classrooms or left as offices, a cubicle area became the lunch/commons. But our students and teachers both bemoan the lack of a gymnasium and of science labs. (And the neighborhood bemoans the lack of a dedicated drop-off/pick-up area, causing daily traffic snarls.)

There are definitely certain PROGRAMS that can be put in a non-school facility ("virtual school" is another one), and some buildings shouldn't be in use at all. But a school-specific school building is still best for most uses, and there's really no cheaper way for us to run schools than to own them.

(Also, I don't actually know the answer to this, but -- we don't pay property taxes on our school buildings. Commercial developers pay property taxes on, say, strip malls. If we put a classroom in a strip mall, presumably we still pay property tax, correct? So that'd be rolled into the rent cost, and that's not insignificant around here. So far all our non-school buildings that we've used temporarily have been borrowed/leased from other governmental entities or, in one case, a 501(c)3.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:01 PM on August 18, 2011


It was filled with bells and whistles, but bells and whistles that would require a lot of labor and cost to maintain: a pool, a greenhouse, elevators, escalators, a novel heating system.

That's fair, I was probably over-generalizing based on the example I'm familiar with. There's something to be said for designing for ease of maintenance in the first place.
posted by invitapriore at 6:06 PM on August 18, 2011


Ugh. I went to school in a classic Chicago Public School, built in the late 20s or early 30s. There were many aspects that were prison-like, but in retrospect, it seems like humanity has lost all concept of how to build a school (or even a building) since then.

The ceilings were high, and every classroom had a full wall of windows. The lighting was good, and indirect. (Fixtures hung from the ceiling and the light pointed up at the ceiling. It was fluorescent, but there were no icky plastic diffusers.) Turns out, fluorescent light isn't nearly so bad when it is made indirect. There was no point in the building where you couldn't see outside light, unless the shades were drawn.

The classrooms on the west side of the building could get a little warm in the summer, but somehow, the windows were configured so that the shades could be drawn that prevented the hot sun from blasting directly onto people, but also let ventilation and light through. They also could run the heater fans so that you got a little fresh air. It was hot, but almost never stifling.

The bathrooms were built with low toilets, which is probably against ADA now, but made it unnecessary to have to retrofit if older or younger students were going to use them. The urinals were the old school (ha! an actual real use of that phrase) down to the floor models, so again, they were usable for all ages. They bathrooms were also all tile, and could easily be hosed down nightly if they got disgusting. More importantly, the building was clean. (Or, clean-ish, anyway.) Worn, yes. Paint was old, yes. But if there was loose tile, it got fixed. The desks and books were ancient (there were cases where multiple generations of families had checked out the same book from the library- still the same card with names from the 70s), but they were in good repair. Sure, the books on the lives of the presidents ended with Johnson, but they got the job done: you weren't there to actually learn about the presidents so much as how to write a book report.

What I am struck by now is that the school has (something like) 35 classrooms, and almost no offices. The administration "suite" was a classroom sized chunk that was split into the principal's office, the secretary area, a copy room/closet and a small foyer area. There were a couple of small office-like rooms at the ends of hallways where the teachers lounges were, and I think the science teachers got an office. The library was two classroom sized chunks with the wall between them removed. The auditorium was a monstrous affair. Heavy tapestries on the walls, murals painted by the WPA, a projection room, a balcony.

This was important, I think. There was a feeling that this was a building dedicated to teaching. The only educator who didn't work in a classroom most of the day was the principal, and the only non teacher staff was a couple three maintenance people, the secretary, an office admin type (she made lots of ditto copies), and the counselor.

Further, they all knew our names. The principal would substitute teach if he had the time, and was always in the hallways when the students were there. Pulling people aside, using their full names ("Joseph" or "James"), and gently but sternly telling them to tie their "shoelaces" or that their collar was inside out.

I forget the actual schedule, but I do remember this: we had an hour for lunch. Half an hour to eat, and half an hour to run around on the playlot. Older students had the option to "go home for lunch", which really meant roaming the neighborhood for an hour. We got into some trouble, but in addition to that, there were actually businesses dedicated to students. There were a couple of food places where you could get a slice and a can of pop for $1.50. And a candy store with video games.

I've gone on far too long. The point is: these were buildings designed to last 100 years, and by god, many of them will. They were designed with the basic educational needs of the students in mind, but at the same time, I don't think anyone would get the idea that there was any expense spared if it was necessary. They weren't *cheap* buildings, but they were frugal and frugally run. They were expensive in dollars, but those dollars were deployed to pay off in the end. The building might take 50 years to pay off the bonds, but then there is another 50 years of having an essentially free building.

The stories related here make me very sad. It seems like the opposite is becoming true. Wasteful buildings built with too much maintenance required, and as if the educational needs of the students were an afterthought.
posted by gjc at 7:29 AM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Hm. To continue the story, I went to a more modern High School. This time, a Catholic school. Tuition was $1975 my first year, 89-90. It is close to $10k now, with much of that having gone into the buildings. They were built much more cheaply, and required more maintenance. When I was there, there was a program where students could work after school for a couple hours and during the summer as maintenance interns, to help their families pay the freight. But I think it had a secondary purpose, to teach kids about maintaining things and work. I did it for three years, and in that time, we built a baseball field, cut a shitload of grass, painted a shitload of walls, rehabbed a bunch of rooms, changed locks, unloaded trucks, and on and on. My favorites were "here kid, take this blowtorch, piece of glass and glazing putty and replace the broken window in 213." Or "hey kid, do you have a drivers license? No? Doesn't matter. Take the pickup truck across the street and recharge the fire extinguishers with the gas station's air compressor."

It cost them probably the equivalent of 1 salary to have 15 kids learning and being involved, and getting a lot of stuff done. I'm betting you don't see much of *that* anymore.

Then I went to the concrete jungle itself, University of Illinois at Chicago. It was not a terribly bad place, in theory, but in some kind of modernization effort, they took down all the concrete between-building walkways, so the whole plan failed. The classroom buildings all had Roman style mini amphitheaters on the roofs. Which were now inaccessible. A quick jaunt across the pedway to another building became a 15 minute trudge through various stairwells.

There was a lot of unfinished concrete, but with the walkways, you didn't feel trapped. Without them, it was like being in prison.

Progress. Yay?
posted by gjc at 7:48 AM on August 19, 2011


For anyone who's still interested, I actually had a budget meeting today, and I have the numbers in front of me; here are the funds we levy into (there are 9, not 11. There are 11 columns on the spreadsheet is where I got 11!). Each fund has its own levy (we lay the levy, you pay the tax. You typically see the combined levy number as a total tax percentage on your bill, but for us it's broken down into 100ths of a percent, and there are specific rules for each portion).

Operating Funds:
Education Fund (teachers, mostly; also supplies, contracts with outside providers of educational services of certain types, continuing education funds for teachers, etc.). Approximately 85% of our operating funds go into the Ed fund, and around 82% of the ed fund pays teacher salaries and benefits.

Operations & Maintenance, which is for operating and maintaining our physical plant. This is approximately 7% of our operating funds. Of that, about half pays salaries and benefits to our maintenance guys. (We are a large enough district that we maintain our own painters, plumbers, carpenters, electricians, etc., and can do MOST repairs and upgrades in-house.)

Transportation, for buses. About 4% of total expenditures.

IMRF/SocSec, which pays for various retirement things NOT for teachers (teachers retirement is in the Ed fund), around 3% of total expenditures.

If you do the math, around 71% of our total operating funds pay teachers.

Other Funds:
Debt Service, which is bond payment.

Capital Projects, which is *mostly* state funds; the state puts a portion of its money towards necessary capital projects in school districts. The waiting list quite long, but it's a way for the state to encourage capital projects WITHOUT needing to do bonding authority. We don't have to pay this back.

Working Cash. This can be raised by bonds or property taxes and helps with shortfalls in other funds ... which happen a lot since the state is perpetually behind on its general state aid payments. Like last year they were $9 million behind just with us, and they give us around $50 million. At one point we were not sure we could make payroll because the state was so far behind.

Tort Fund, which pays for lawsuits (and workers' comp, I believe). This is an uncapped levy; you have to pay whatever you have to pay for lawsuits. If nobody sues us, this levy is zero. (This levy is never zero.) If we get sued a lot, the levy is whatever's required to cover the payouts to the winners. We are, however, insured against most lawsuits, so in practice it's not totally unlimited.

Health/Life Safety, which is the every-10-years survey that requires us to bring stuff up to code (for schools). This can be levied directly OR paid through bonds. It's broken down into "MUST DO NOW" and "should do now" and "could do if you have the funds." Fire code updates are MUST DO NOW. Every 10 years, every school we have, even the 100+ year old ones, must come up to the latest in fire code. (This is a good thing. But often an expensive thing.) We had one survey this year that identified peeling linoleum as a must replace. Someone above talked about cracked tiles being repaired -- that would probably be a must replace. Lead pipes is an ABSOLUTELY must replace. One of our schools has a lead pipe to a gorgeous historic water fountain (of all things!) that's 120 years old and has a beautiful historic mosaic, and the pipes can't be gotten at to be fixed without massive expensive, so this beautiful (marble?) water fountain can't be used and alternative fountains, adequate to the school population, had to be installed. Honestly as soon as one HLS survey is done and all the repairs made, the next one starts.

My district has a $200 million budget total, of which around $172 million is operating, $15 million is bond payments, and the remaining $13 million is capital projects, working cash, lawsuits, and life/safety improvements. Of the $172 million operating, $147 million (or nearly 3/4 of our total budget) goes into the ed fund, and of THAT, approximately $125 million pays for teachers, or around 5/8 of our funds.

There are some weird things not captured there, like we had $17 million in a capital grant for one particular school, that's through an unusual community funding mechanism. And of course some years the capital fund is huuuuuuuuuuge and other years it's tiny.

Some of the rule oddities are fascinating; capital funds can pay for whiteboards nailed to the wall, but not for whiteboards that roll. Capital funds can pay for permanently installed science lab benches, but not regular student desks that can move. Capital funds can't pay for teachers unless we nail them to the floor, which I feel like is probably a suboptimal use of teachers and I'm SURE it is not allowed by the union contract! ;)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:32 PM on August 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


« Older A supercut of the classic "walking away" shot.   |   The L*** H*** of D***ness Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post