Educational Specifications: Community Involvement from Start to Finish

What does it take to create school facilities now that can handle challenges in the 21st century? What will students and staff be doing in 2030 that is different from today, and how will the community be involved? How do you create facilities that will adapt to changing pedagogies yet not dictate programming?

These are questions that school district administrators nationwide ask themselves as they plan facilities for the future. The first step in answering these questions is to develop educational specifications.

Educational specifications outline essential educational concepts and detailed facility requirements. They also include information about student needs, current and future instructional strategies, the impact of technology on education, and community use.

Students and teachers occupy most school buildings from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. That leaves a great deal of time for community use such as adult education classes, yoga instruction, art classes, civic meetings, blood drives, mentoring classes, senior citizen programs, and voting in local, state, and federal elections. Therefore, school facilities must be planned appropriately to create space for community events, athletics, recreation and the arts, while still creating a safe and secure learning environment for students.

School districts throughout the United States have been quite successful in achieving the community-school balance. For example, the Valdez Middle School in Valdez, Alaska not only serves the academic needs of middle school students for 180 days each year, it also serves the community for 365 days. Since Valdez is snowbound for multiple months, it is critical for the community to have recreational, athletic and arts space. Therefore, the middle school has a full-size competition gymnasium for both student and community athletic events and a restaurant-grade kitchen that serves several purposes. It is used to introduce middle school students to the culinary arts, to teach special-needs students life skills and to prepare meals or refreshments for public events.

Developing Educational Specifications
Here is a brief synopsis of the development process:
• Form an educational specifications committee: A committee comprised of teachers, administrators, support staff, special services staff, parents, students, central office personnel, city managers, and community members assist in the development of the educational specifications.
• Organize a visioning work session: This includes a discussion of trends related to education, the economy, demography and technology, as well as best practices in school organization and new concepts for school facilities.

• Conduct planning lab #1: Participants work in their program areas (e.g. academics, arts, physical education, and welcome center to name a few) to define the size and number of spaces, describe the adjacencies of spaces, activities in the spaces, and requirements for mechanical, plumbing, electrical, lighting, technology, furniture, equipment, flooring, doors, windows, and any other special considerations. Each group presents its ideas, which foster further discussion on topics such as flexible spaces, shared spaces, and spatial adjacencies.

• Plan a community meeting: Community members share their input on a variety of topics related to the new or renovated facility, including indoor and outdoor athletic needs, recreation spaces, visual and performing arts spaces, safety, security, technology, site issues, green/sustainable facilities, and aesthetics.

• Conduct planning lab #2: Participants work in their program areas to review and further refine their plans to produce a summary of space sizes and building layout illustrations.

• Prepare the educational specifications document: Organized into distinct sections, this document contains information necessary for the planning, design, and renovation and/or construction of new school facilities:

Executive Summary: Provides an overview of the content within the document
21st Century Best Practices: Describes nationally recognized best practices in education as they relate to program delivery methods
Planning Labs: Includes discussions from the labs
Technology: Explains how technology will be integrated into the curriculum and facility
Safety and Security: Provides overview of the safety and security plan
Site Issues: Includes special circumstances or considerations to keep in mind, including building design, traffic flow, lighting, landscaping, and parking issues
Green/sustainable Schools: Explains the design and construction of school facilities that are environmentally responsible
Aesthetics: Describes the visual appeal of the school
Community Use: Explains the integration of community needs with school facilities related to the cafeteria, gymnasium, auditorium, and media center
Cost Analysis: Provides the associated costs to renovate or build the new facility and identifies potential partnerships in the corporate and arts arenas for co-funding
Program Areas: Summarizes the type, number, and size of each instructional and support space, as well as spatial relationships to each program area

• District Approval: The Board of Education and/or the Superintendent of Schools should approve the final document.
Using this process, all stakeholders are able to contribute their best thinking about the programs and services that a facility can deliver not only to students and teachers during instructional hours, but also to the community after school concludes for the day.
Indeed, a genuine commitment to community involvement is integral to a successful development process. A shared vision among all entities expresses common goals and establishes an agreement with an altruistic focus to improve student success. The secret to creating superior educational facilities is community involvement, from start to finish.

Kerrianne Wolf, REFP, is the educational specifications specialist at DeJONG-RICHTER. She applies her experience as a licensed K-12 teacher and software trainer when preparing educational specifications and facility master plans for schools districts nationwide. For more information, contact her at or at 614-798-8828.