February 24, 2019
Classroom utilization is a powerful tool to help high schools figure out how to balance space efficiency and budget constraints with flexibility and space needs for specialized courses. When utilization studies are done early in the design of new high schools or major school renovations, they can result in tremendous space savings while also promoting staff collaboration.
Unlike elementary schools where students might spend nearly all day in one room with one teacher, most high school students have varied schedules where they move from space to space every period. In many traditional high schools, teachers still “own” their classroom in a model more like elementary schools than colleges, so the rooms sit empty part of every day while the teacher is having a prep period or coaching a sport or using another space. Classroom utilization analysis can be done for existing and/or new schools, to look at:
It is impossible to achieve 100% utilization when juggling student schedules and classes of varying sizes, but it is often possible to aim for around 85% utilization to create a well-utilized school while maintaining flexibility.
Lower utilization rates can add up to a lot of wasted space. On one recent project, our team found that existing high school core classrooms were used as little as 56% of the day because teachers had two non-teaching periods per day to participate in professional learning communities and prep for classes, and some teachers didn’t have full-time teaching loads. By re-programming spaces based on a goal of 85% utilization the number of core classrooms was cut almost in half, which saved around 20,000sf of space and allowed core departments to be located closer together.
This was accomplished in part by moving to a system where teachers have their own desk in a shared workspace instead of in their classroom, so each classroom can be used for other classes during prep periods. This is a big change for teachers who are used to having a dedicated classroom, but shared work areas can help teachers collaborate during their planning periods, which is one of the main goals of having a common planning period by team or department.
Another strategy is to create different scales of classrooms/labs to allow each class to be held in a space that is appropriately sized and equipped for that class, as is common in college settings where students move between small seminar rooms, larger classrooms, and different types of labs. This requires careful scheduling but can create much more supportive learning environments for varied uses instead of holding all classes in standardized classrooms.
Analyzing space utilization and class scheduling may not seem as interesting as the rest of the design process, but it can make a big difference. It can allow schools to have more space for things like specialized labs and breakout spaces, or reduce the overall size of the school to save on both initial construction and ongoing maintenance costs, while also encouraging teachers to work together more.
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