Q&A:Amy Yurko, Brain Spaces


Amy Yurko is founder of Brain Spaces, a Chicago-based consulting firm that offers efficiency programming and planning services for schools. She is a scheduled speaker at the 2009 annual Council of Educational Facility Planners, International conference. Her workshop focuses on ways that schools with budget constraints can make the most of available space. She spoke with School Construction News in a phone interview.

Q: What are the key components of school utilization and efficiency?

A: There are several components that need to be addressed. The first one is capacity, which is determined in a couple of different ways, including how many students are enrolled in the school and how many students participate in each one of the programs.

Another key component is scheduling. One thing that we’ve found is when we look at the schedule, we can often find a scheduling strategy that helps to make the building more efficient.

For example, a series of classrooms might sit empty while the students are in gym class. If you back-schedule with foreign language or other classes, then that classroom could be used and not sitting empty. It might help with the facility crunch.

Q: In your experience, are most K-12 school districts underutilizing their schools?

A: No. That is actually a trick question. Most of my clients have utilizations higher than the national average for classrooms. But there are also a number of caveats and specifics that need to be considered when you’re doing those kinds of calculations.

For example, if I have five students taking advanced German, do those five students use a whole classroom, when actually that classroom was designed for 25 students? You are not really using that space wisely. If you have an office space that could easily hold five students, schedule a class there. Leave that bigger classroom open for another larger class.

Consider scheduling, and also the number of students, the size of the space, and whether it’s appropriately sized for that program and number of students.

Q: How do you develop a scheduling strategy that increases building efficiency?

A: We look at schedules, the overall enrollments, the individual course-type enrollments and all the spaces in the buildings to align the use of those spaces with the people and the programs of the school.

That usually causes a reshuffling of room assignments. They don’t necessarily need to be reshuffled every period, but it may mean that if we swap two teachers, it could make all the difference in how that program is offered and how those students can occupy those rooms.

When I go into this scope of work, I never know what I’m going to find. It could be that one of the recommendations is to put together a committee to study the building scheduling.

I worked with a small middle school in Illinois. When we shuffled the schedule, we were able to take the number of teachers who had to roam from classroom to classroom from 80 percent to 20 percent. Teacher roaming has a huge impact on teacher satisfaction and turnover rates.

Q: What level of involvement is required from a district to successfully implement these changes and sustain them?

A: There are different ways in which districts prefer it to happen, and we have to work within their parameters. You can have a range of involvement from the district level. Depending on the level of involvement, the data varies.

I prefer to engage the district staff on several levels. First, I like to meet with the district leadership — all the people who work at the district level — to make sure that every school has standards that are being followed.

Q: How do you start the process with a district?

A: We look at the overall district guidelines, the district-level curriculum, and big overarching goals. Then we meet with the site-based leadership — the principal, assistant principal, and perhaps the special-needs director and curriculum coordinators — to get schoolwide goals.

We walk the building, and I usually like to be walked through the building by either teachers or students, depending on the grade level. At a high school, the students will really tell you what’s working and what’s not.

In a lot of cases, you take multiple tours, hopefully with students, teachers and/or administrators, and finally with a building engineer or maintenance director, because they have their own idea of what works.

Q: How do you ensure a school implements your recommendations?

A: It’s always good to follow through. Once you work with school districts with this level of intensity, you can’t help but have friends at the end of it. There is constant interaction and ideas thrown back and forth. It’s almost never a quick fix. It often takes a phased approach because of the complexity.

Oftentimes, we will provide a series of recommendations for things that can be done immediately within a school or classroom, then things that can be phased in that might take a little more time, and then a third phase with recommendations that might be more long-term or immediately cost-prohibitive.

It seems like every district goes into the process with the same thinking of what they’re going to come out with, and it’s never the same.

Q: What are some immediate changes that districts can make to create more space?

A: I can’t tell you how many places I’ve gone where a storage room has a quarter-inch of dust on everything. A lot of space needs are just about weeding and throwing out. Get off-site storage if you can’t throw stuff out. There is a lot of clutter in classrooms. Less clutter can make a space feel bigger, and it actually is bigger when you take stuff out that you really don’t need every day.

One way to facilitate that — of course, nobody wants to throw away their stuff — is to reorganize or switch teachers to a different classroom because it means they have to pack up their stuff and move. When they’re packing up their things, they always find stuff they don’t need and throw it out.

The other strategy is to consider school enrollments across a district and try to align them with the capacity for each of those schools. That usually entails ability to transfer from one school to another across boundary lines or a shifting of boundary lines. You don’t always have to do it with a boundary line. You could do it with vouchers or volunteers to move.

Q: Would you say the majority of changes are organizational, not architectural?

A: You can do different levels of change. There are administrative and organizational changes, including room reassignments, which you could make tomorrow. You can also do architectural interventions.

Classrooms can be divided into two spaces to better accommodate small groups and free bigger classrooms for something else.

Q: How do most school districts feel about sharing classrooms and other teaching spaces?

A: A little sharing can go a really long way, but it’s tied to teacher preference. Some teachers want their own rooms because they feel it’s important. But if a school district can’t afford to do that, then they have to cut programs. We have very little control over that, but sometimes if we talk to the teachers and show them what would be possible if they shared more spaces, they will get behind it.

Q: Do you see an equal amount of new schools and older schools experience similar growing pains?

A: I often find that the older buildings, the 1880s- to 1920s-era schools, are very easy to adapt in terms of space. Then you have the schools from the 1930s through the 1970s. Those buildings are hell.

Q: Why is that?

A: They are more industrial, with classrooms going down the hall and nothing extra. They’re very linear, with no windows, and are just difficult architecturally.

In general, within the last 20 years or so, it seems as though there has been a new awareness of the ability of a school to flex for future unknown programs.

Still, every school has its maximum capacity. When a new school suddenly does not have enough room, it is more of a demographic error than an architectural one. If the demographic projections are way off, you are going to need a new school sooner than you thought, or you might have a school that sits empty.

It’s really important to get a quality demographic projection done when you’re embarking on any process that has to do with facilities.

Q: Have you worked with school districts dealing with under-enrollment? How do you address that issue?

A: Yes. Then it’s an issue of how to use the facility. We talk about outside entities that could come in and rent space, and sharing with a community college or another educational institution that could use the space. Partnerships are almost always a great option to explore.

Q: What trends have you observed in the last year?

A: One of the main trends is districts are generally becoming more skeptical that they will be able to enhance facilities in the near future. More districts are looking for ways to utilize their space.

One of the key challenges I’m seeing in space utilization is an increase in the extent of special programs and services. There are general education and special education components, and the services for those are being widely increased.

Another trend is a higher emphasis on hands-on learning, which at the high school level involves a career-tech component. Any kind of project-based, hands-on learning often requires a little bit more space than a regular classroom.

It’s pretty difficult to go into a regular classroom and add 200 square feet. We have to look at other creative ways to share space or reduce enrollment in a class in order to allow fewer students but more equipment.

Brain Spaces