As we begin another school year and the class of 2029 walks into school for the first time, I can’t help but think of the future and the opportunity to start fresh. It’s the time of year where we think about how we may shape the future – and realize the curriculum is just the beginning.
The walls and spaces matter, too. That’s why schools spend time creating facility plans and thoughtfully considering how their spaces can inspire connections and learning, or at least not get in the way.
School leaders are natural dreamers. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy working with them. Because of that, in many cases, schools plan with rose-colored glasses and just projections for growth. But growth can be just a piece of a school district’s facility plan.
If there is one thing schools can count on each year, it’s change. In recent time, we have seen an accelerated rate of change in the education system and a drive toward 21st Century learning environments. But even without that, change is expected. Historically, enrollment is not consistent. Every district has ups and downs in enrollment – some more than others.
For many school districts shaping facility plans around growing, sustaining and declining enrollment is an effective and adaptive way to plan. They all can be possibilities, regardless of where your school district falls today.
Is your school district positioned for change?
Here are three key scenarios school districts can outline in facility plans to best position their district for the future:
- What if we grow…
Growth rarely happens across the board. Identifying where the specific growth areas are is the first step. The needs often are greater than the resources. Or construction plans need to be phased over a longer period of time to avoid disrupting the school year. A school district may begin construction on one area of the building to expand classrooms, for example, and then move the classrooms over a break before beginning another part of the project. Take the time to prioritize the needs and create a phased approach that best fits your school district. Then, be nimble. In one case, a school district built a new K-8 school and planned for expansion based on community growth projections. That timeline ended up being accelerated by three years because the community grew faster than expected.
- What if we sustain…
Staying the same is actually an option, but it’s often overlooked in the planning process. Naturally, planning focuses on change and sustaining – or staying the same – does not fit that traditional definition. But a school district can have steady enrollment for years and still have an old building with outdated old infrastructure, technology and furniture. That building could be taking up all your deferred maintenance costs – and even be eating you alive. Not to mention, it could be preventing your district from delivering the 21st Century education to your community. Take the time to assess your buildings and uncover changes you need to make to ensure they are sustainable and aid in your delivery of education.
- What if we shrink…
This is a scenario that may feel out of a district’s control. It’s often one we’d rather not consider. But taking the time to understand and outline a plan accordingly helps school districts sharpen their focus on what’s critical and areas to consolidate or shape differently. These can be very healthy and productive conversations and actually help an organization better position itself for the future. It may mean the school district decided to sell or repurpose buildings and use the money to help renovate and update remaining buildings and funnel more resources into creating flexible and highly effective learning environments.
In one school district, leaders expecting declining enrollment planned to explore closing or selling a building. In the short term, the plan called for monitoring enrollment. Three years later, an unexpected turnover in the local housing market resulted in unexpected growth in the area that school building served. With all three scenarios available to them, school districts can be more nimble.
Understanding and outlining plans around the highs and lows of your school district allows you to be more effective in serving students and your community – no matter what the future brings. Even the best laid out plans require modifications. So, make it a practice to revisit the scenarios every three years and keep your district one step ahead.
Get more details on creating a plan in this Step-by-Step Community Planning Guide.