Friday, March 28, 2014

School Reception Desks & Intimidation: Seeing a School through Student Eyes

School can be an intimidating experience for students. The first days and weeks of a school year, whether we’re talking about the student’s first day of school ever, at the beginning of a new school year, or in a new school after moving, can be particularly intimidating and even scary events in the life of a student.

It’s important that a school’s design not contribute to this feeling of intimidation. It should, in fact, help mitigate such feelings and facilitate positive interactions with teachers/staff and other students, as well as help students feel welcome. An elementary school’s reception desk provides an example of this.

In an elementary school, the youngest and shortest students should still be able to see over the counter at the reception desk. The design of the reception desk in the image on the left doesn’t allow for this, and provides those students affected with an intimidating and less welcoming experience. For this particular school, it was also an annoyance for those manning the desk in that they have to motion the students to peak around the side or they have to stand up. And that annoyance may be inadvertently felt by the student as well, increasing the negative nature of the interaction.
But at the school in the image on the right, the reception desk has a center section low enough for students, even the youngest and shortest students, to see over and engage the adult on the other side face to face. It encourages the human connection between receptionist and student as opposed to hindering it, and as such, represents the better practice.

As a side note, part of the reason we conduct post occupancy evaluations is to give the occupant a voice and allow us to see the facility through their eyes. As I conducted the analysis after visiting both of these schools, I realized I could have done a better job at showing the school through the eyes of the younger students. None of the photographs were taken from their perspective. Imagine how much more powerful the contrasting images would have been had they been taken from a kindergartner’s eye level perspective.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

How a Lack of Space/Flexibility Can Impact Teacher Productivity/Performance

Spatial restrictions and a lack of flexibility can have significant impacts on productivity/performance, as was found during the fieldwork conducted for a Kansas school district’s master planning effort. Spatial restrictions in general, and the lack of space for support staff and the combined “gymacafetoriums” (gyms, cafeteria and auditorium) of several of the older elementary schools in particular, had resulted in a “culture” or “specialization” in scheduling that varied in scale from yearly/semester scheduling tasks to daily scheduling tasks. A large degree of effort was put into scheduling the multiple uses of individual spaces (down to the minute), and a lot of time was spent traversing from one end to the other of these schools, or out to the portables. As a result, a significant amount of time was diverted from the educational mission of the schools, limiting flexibility and constraining individual teaching and administrator styles.

One principal stated that on the day before his interview was conducted, he and his staff had spent two hours talking logistics. He estimated that on average 15 to 20 minutes per day were spent dealing with scheduling issues and other related matters tied to space restrictions. At another school, the gifted teacher (who at the time occupied a former closet space), lamented that on the morning of her school’s interviews she found a special education meeting occurring in her office when she came in. As a result she had to find a space elsewhere to operate from, but that space ended up being taken over as well. The end result was that “education hadn’t happened in her room that day …

At a third school, one staff member commented: “There are not enough staff restrooms and they are too far from the gym.  I only have a couple of minutes usually to walk halfway down the length of the building to get to a staff restroom and since there are only 2 toilets in that location they can be occupied when I need to quickly use the restroom and get to my next class. It creates a lot of anxiety!  I hate to make my classes/teachers wait for me.”

In the end, after implementing surveys and conducting in-context interviews and observation, and analyzing the data gathered, we conservatively estimated that addressing the elementary school space restrictions and lack of flexibility issues would have the following benefits:
  • Eliminate 18,400 – 22,400 person-hours per school-year of wasted teacher/staff time spent scheduling and coordinating use of space. 
  • Equates to approximately 2.16% - 2.63% of the total labor hours annually “spent” by the elementary school teachers/staff. 
  • Translates to approximately $722,970 – $883,630 worth of teacher/staff time each year.
Another way to put this is that at least $722,970 – $883,630 was annually being spent for tasks/efforts not directly related to education, but required by the limitations of some of the district’s facilities. And these limitations weren’t present in all of the schools, creating a source of inequity among the district’s elementary schools. This became one of the many items addressed in the master plan, as well as one of the many reasons presented to the community for supporting the associated bond.

Don't Forget the People

Our built environment isn’t just about the building or the physical; it’s also about the people. It’s about understanding occupant daily activities and interactions, about understanding how this impacts building performance and vice versa, and how we account for this during master planning, design and post occupancy to align needs with the built environment. Because a facility’s contextual ability to meet our needs in turn shapes, enables, encourages, restricts and constrains all sorts of individual behavior. And this has a variety of quantitative and qualitative impacts on the individual as well as on the larger organization of which they are a part of (and to society in general).

So, don't forget the people.