Ukiah Unified School District

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The Power of Partnership, Innovation and Learning

School Desk Blog: School Facilities Do More than Keep Students Safe and Dry


           It is rare for people to embrace change. Most of us like our comfort zones, thank you very much. This facet of human nature makes it difficult to gain support for unconventional thinking.

Right now, we are in the process of creating a facilities master plan. When we did this ten years ago, we tried to come up with creative ways to prepare for the future, but we had no way of predicting the direction and speed of technological innovation. We did things like install far more electrical outlets than we thought we’d need in Ukiah High School’s computer lab. Now the whole idea of a computer lab is quaint—every classroom is a computer lab. With a good wifi signal, we can even use computers outdoors.

As we learn more about how the human brain absorbs information, it is increasingly clear that school facilities do more than simply provide a location for students to learn. Well-designed facilities contribute to student success by encouraging active learning.

While some lessons are appropriate in a lecture format, many are more effective when they incorporate group work and hands-on learning. Classrooms that only allow one type of learning often do a disservice to many students. This is why we are hoping to create new types of learning spaces, ones that engage the eyes, ears, and sense of touch.

As you’d expect, studies show that students do better in classrooms with fresh air, sunlight, comfortable temperatures, and good acoustics. A 2009 study titled, “Improving Student Achievement and School Facilities in a Time of Limited Funding” by Carole Cash and Travis Twiford says, “The condition of facilities can account for as many as 11 percentile points on student accountability assessments.” That’s huge.

Interestingly, some research suggests that color choices can impact learning. Paint is cheap. If we can help students concentrate and/or feel calm by putting the right colors on the walls, why wouldn’t we?

Through the years, local bond funding has allowed us to build and modernize schools. Thirty years ago, local taxpayers approved a bond that allowed us to build Grace Hudson Elementary School and update Oak Manor and Nokomis elementary schools, removing eleven portable classrooms in the process. We also renovated Pomolita Middle School, reducing the old shop building, the “500 wing,” to its steel bones and creating completely new interiors.

In 2005, taxpayers approved a bond measure to modernize Ukiah High School, allowing us to improve energy efficiency, bring in natural light via skylights, and update electrical wiring, plumbing, and technology infrastructure. We renovated the classrooms, the administration building, and our athletic facilities—including the gym and an all-weather track. We now have a music room with practice rooms, a choir room, a state-of-the art kitchen, and Career Technical Education (CTE) facilities that are truly amazing.

As we look to the future, it’s hard to know exactly where education is going, but it’s a safe bet that technology will continue to evolve and students will continue to perform better in healthy environments that encourage active learning.

Steve Turner, Facilities Manager at the Mendocino County Office of Education, recently told me that lawmakers are rewriting Title 5, which governs standards for school classrooms and facilities. It’ll be interesting to see what they come up with.

He also stressed the importance of staying open minded and flexible. He said, “With new information, teachers aren’t the only ones who need adopt new approaches to engage students; people who support facilities need to change, too. Of course, it’s easier if we use the same color paint for every surface, but if it isn’t good for students, we need to be willing to store lots of different paint.” He’s right, of course.

We’re looking at everything from paint color to classroom size to furniture for our new facilities plan. Funding is always a challenge, but with a solid plan that maximizes flexibility, we’ll be as prepared as we can be.