Why So Many Older K-12 Schools Are Too Large—Yet Running Out of Space
When asked to justify a school renovation or expansion, many K-12 principals say they’re “out of room”—even if enrollment is lower now than it was when the facility was built. On the flip side, there’s a nagging perception that older schools aren’t taking advantage of the space they have, with classrooms and other areas utilized only partially.
Why the disconnect? The reason lies behind today’s educational policies, which have a dramatic impact on a school’s capacity. Here’s how:
Maximum class sizes are smaller. At the height of the baby boom, classrooms typically held 40 or more students. The official student-teacher ratio was 26.9 in 1955. Today, with the rise of inclusionary special education and policies that aim to improve outcomes for all pupils, the student-teacher ratio is now 16:1. So a 20-classroom school built in the 1950s for 538 students would now hold only 320 students. And most of those classrooms would be underutilized, as small groups meet in older, large spaces.
Policies on specialized learning call for flexible classroom spaces. Many districts find that while there is technically enough floor space within their buildings, there aren’t enough small gathering spaces designed to accommodate state and federally mandated programs for services such as one-on-one tutoring or occupational therapy. Schools that lack these areas naturally waste space, as small groups use large classrooms, and also waste money on operation and maintenance costs for the excess square footage.
Annual fluctuations in class size limits and student-teacher ratios can trigger a need for more classrooms. These limits and ratios are usually set by the school board on a year-to-year basis. Even a change that seems simple—for instance, dropping from 30 to 28 students allowed per classroom—could result in one extra classroom required for each grade level in a given year. These variations are due to the reality that schools can rarely “max out” their class sizes, as grade enrollment usually does not divide evenly by the maximum headcount per classroom.
DLR Group uses visuals and graphics as a simple, clear way to illustrate how a school is being used. Starting with the existing floor plans, DLR Group overlays colors keyed to the current school use to create a series of facility maps. These diagrams help our clients and their communities quickly visualize space efficiencies or inefficiencies. With this knowledge, school boards can plan for the future, voters can confidently choose projects that “right-size” their schools, and facility managers can work with educators to get the most capacity out of their current buildings.