A lesson in design: High-performance schools are the future

Of all the trends that the K-12 market has experienced, there is one that we believe is here to stay and will guide the future of education:  the design and construction of "high-performance" schools that meet the needs of all users.

High-performance schools are facilities that can impact the learning environment in a variety of critical ways including, but not limited to: improving test scores, increasing average daily attendance, reducing operating costs, increasing teacher satisfaction and retention, mitigating liability exposure and reducing environmental impacts.

In order to support school officials in achieving these lofty goals, it is important for architects to manage priorities, time and budget during the design and construction process. But there are other factors at play–including people, environment and technology–that can help shape the success of your next school project.

Below are some key considerations and recommendations: 


• Design with Users’ Needs in Mind: Identifying the underlying physical and psychological aspects that affect the learning experience is step one. This can be accomplished through a variety of advanced research techniques that aim to uncover the spoken and unspoken needs of all users–from students and visitors to teachers and administrators.


• Think Green: Key design elements, such as material use, water management, indoor environmental quality, etc., can impact the environment. These elements should be taken into consideration during the design phase to build a facility that will easily adapt to and accommodate the school’s changing needs.

• Perform an Energy Audit: Working with the appropriate officials to perform an energy audit, an investigation of all facets of a building’s energy use, helps identify areas for energy improvement.  Energy improvements can free up resources by lowering utility bills to fund other enhancements to the learning environment.

• Lead with LEED: As of April 20, 2007, all new construction and major renovations of K-12 school facilities seeking LEED certification must use the LEED for Schools Rating System, the recognized standard for high-performance schools. The LEED for Schools Rating System recognizes the unique nature of the design and construction of K-12 schools.  By addressing the distinct needs of school spaces and children’s health issues, this standard provides a comprehensive tool for schools that wish to build green, with measurable results.


• Factor in Technology: "Classrooms of the future"–a popular catchphrase–embrace the need for and use of technology as an effective learning and productivity tool. While markers, whiteboards and textbooks are still essential tools for education, more and more administrators recognize the important role that technology plays in helping students prepare for the global challenges that lie ahead. To that end, we–as architects–should work closely with school officials to integrate a number of advanced solutions, from technology infrastructure to hardware and software, throughout the entire facility.

Designing schools that enhance the K-12 learning experience and help children reach their ultimate potential has long been a priority for top architecture teams.  Continued collaboration with school officials will help transform the classroom experience for both students and educators well into the future.

John Francona is the senior vice president of the K-12 division at Astorino, an architecture firm in Pittsburgh, Pa.


For modest earners, relief repaying student loans

Repaying a student loan could soon be a little less painful, according to the Associated Press.  Starting this week, anyone with a federal student loan can apply for a program, run by the Department of Education, that caps monthly payments based on income, and forgives remaining balances after 25 years. Those choosing to work in public service could have their loans forgiven after just 10 years.

Click here for the full story


Audits frustrate e-Rate applicants

Opinions about the management of the federal e-Rate program have improved over the last year, a new survey suggests. But applicants continue to be frustrated by audits, and they’d like to see more transparency in the program.

e-Rate consulting firm Funds for Learning (FFL) released the results of its second annual survey of e-Rate participants June 29. The e-Rate provides $2.25 billion in telecommunications discounts for eligible schools and libraries each year, but keeping track of the program’s many rules and deadlines can pose a challenge to applicants.

Nearly 73 percent of those surveyed who expressed an opinion about the e-Rate’s management gave program administrators a favorable review–up from 65 percent last year. Those who strongly agreed that the e-Rate is well managed increased from 14 percent to 20 percent in the same period, while those who strongly disagreed with this statement dropped from 10 percent to 7 percent.

Four out of five applicants said the e-Rate is meeting its goal of connecting schools and libraries to the internet, and 71 percent said their organization has more classrooms online as a result of the program–up from 59 percent last year. But applicants continue to say the Two-in-Five Rule–which limits a school or library’s receipt of funding for internal connections to twice in a five-year period–is not having its intended effect, which is to allow this funding to reach a greater number of entities.

In last year’s survey, applicants regarded the Bishop Perry Order–a rule change from 2006 that allowed them to make corrections to specific items on their applications, if minor errors are discovered–as the most positive change to the e-Rate program in recent years. This year, however, applicants weren’t quite so enamored with the order. The percentage of respondents who believed Bishop Perry would bring no change to the e-Rate program was 36 percent, up from 25 percent last year.

One applicant noted that even though the Bishop Perry Order allows applicants to correct clerical errors, there is still a "steep price" to pay in terms of the amount of time it takes to see the mistakes rectified. "The ‘reality’ of the Bishop Perry Order may be setting in, making applicants realize that it can’t solve every mistake or error in the e-Rate process," FFL wrote in its survey report.

To guard against potential waste, fraud, and abuse, the Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) of the Universal Service Administrative Co., the agency that administers the e-Rate, conducts numerous audits of program participants. The comments concerning audits in FFL’s survey indicated that most applicants find the audit process arduous and draining on their time and resources. While audits might be a necessary evil, most applicants said the process could be streamlined.

Applicants overwhelmingly agreed that the staff conducting the audits did so in a professional manner. But only 60 percent said they believed those doing the auditing were knowledgeable about the e-Rate’s rules and regulations.

Also, just one in three applicants agreed that the amount of work it takes to respond to an audit is reasonable. One often-cited criticism of the audit process is the amount of time that auditors spend on site. "Auditors can spend up to four weeks, and sometimes longer, at an applicant’s location to perform the field work portion of the review," FFL noted. "Two commenters indicated that the on-site portion of the audit could have been completed within a few days."

Others questioned the need for such an extensive audit when every aspect of the e-Rate process is already closely reviewed, FFL said, while still others complained they’ve been waiting over a year to learn that their audit review is final.


FFL survey

2008 survey (conducted with eSchool News)


7 million YouTube hits make kids’ choir famous

A New York fifth-grade chorus has become a world-famous cyber phenomenon touted by top media outlets, celebrities, and politicians, thanks to the online video-sharing web site YouTube.

And yet, the young singers from Public School 22 have rarely left Staten Island, a water-ringed New York City borough reached by ferry from Manhattan.

Much of the credit for the group’s newfound celebrity goes to a music teacher who apparently is a natural at public relations. "A friend in advertising told me that if I ever want to leave teaching, I should come and work for [him]," jokes the children’s music director, Gregg Breinberg.

About three years ago, he taught his kids to sing the group Coldplay’s hit single "Viva la Vida" and posted the performance on YouTube, followed by a performance of a Tori Amos song.

"They’ve reached the world strictly by internet," says Breinberg.

One day, gossip blogger Perez Hilton came across them on YouTube singing the Amos song in a Manhattan atrium–with Amos tearing up as she listened. Hilton was bowled over by the innocent-sounding voices that matched faces exuding energy and personality.

He posted the link on his blog, triggering a deluge of interest that made the clip one of the top 10 most watched YouTube videos recently.

Since then, the P.S. 22 Chorus has been featured on television and in major newspapers, while 7 million viewers (and counting) have watched them on YouTube.

The chorus even popped up on celebrity Ashton Kutcher’s Twitter feed.

"Honestly, I never imagined that things would take off for the chorus the way they have in the last few years," says Breinberg. "But these kids have risen above tremendous obstacles and have made their voices heard."

Other fans include Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac, who invited them to sing at Madison Square Garden. Neil Finn, lead singer for Crowded House, was so enthused by the children’s online performance of his song "Private Universe" that he asked them to perform with him for the band’s sold-out New York show.

But there’s much more to the success of P.S. 22 than brilliant promotion.

Many of the 70 kids come from struggling families, with about three-quarters of them eligible for free school lunches. Others have academic difficulties or are learning English as a second language.

Bypassing traditional children’s music, Breinberg had taught them grown-up songs that speak to their tough urban lives–like The Doors’ "People Are Strange" and Amos’ "Flying Dutchman," which opens with the line: "Hey kid/Got a ride for you."

And the rest is not exactly kid stuff: "They say/Your brain is a comic book tattoo/And you’ll never be anything. … What will you do with your life?/ Is that all you hear from noon till night?"

When 10-year-old Gabriel Vasquez first entered the chorus, "I was scared, I didn’t want nobody to tease me," he says. "But Mr. B taught me how to let out my feelings and not to hold it back in … tears, joy, excitement."

With sometimes aching openness or unbridled joy, they sing about love, loss, belief, and betrayal in music by Amos, Nicks, or even Billie Holliday, linking their own New York world with the whole world.

Breinberg started the elementary school chorus more then a decade ago, persuading the school to create one despite cuts in arts programs.

The children dote on the man they all call "Mr B"–a 36-year-old guitar-strumming teacher with the winning smile who cracks jokes and makes faces for them.

"The most important part of my job is to make the kids love music," he says. "Technique comes later."

In fact, vocal prowess is not the key to their popularity. Most of them have voices like other children their age, with a few exceptions.

"Maybe individually they don’t have that prodigious talent, but when they come together, they work off each other and become bigger than they are individually," says Breinberg. "They’re able to sing very difficult harmonies, already in fifth grade."


PS22 chorus