Designing schools for teacher retention: A fresh approach

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The new Moffat PK-12 School building.

A February 2017 study by the Learning Policy Institute states that, in addition to salaries and resources for teaching, key factors in teachers’ professional decisions include school culture and collegial relationships, as well as time for collaboration.

Ninety percent of open teaching jobs are created by those leaving the profession, most of them because of dissatisfaction with teaching, according to the Learning Policy Institute, which posits that reducing attrition would change the projected shortages more than any other single factor.

Disadvantaged, rural schools skipped

Considerable evidence shows that teacher shortages historically have disproportionately impacted our most disadvantaged students and that those patterns persist today. “In 2014, high-minority schools had four times as many uncertified teachers as low-minority schools,” said Stuart Coppedge, FAIA, Principal of RTA Architects of Colorado Springs. “When there are not enough teachers to go around, the schools with the fewest resources and least desirable working conditions are the ones left with vacancies.”

How can school design encourage teachers to stay?

RTA Architects is helping to instill school and community pride in rural areas of Colorado. “We are seeing promising results,” Coppedge said. “School pride is contagious. When school districts pull their resources together to provide new, vibrant, 21st century schools, a message is sent to teachers that what they do is valued. Students feel new school pride, which influences teachers, administration, and the community at large. RTA has seen dramatic transformations in districts that have replaced dreary, outdated schools with modern, sunlit, sustainable facilities.”

RTA has placed emphasis on creating flexible spaces in schools that encourage collaboration and offer comfort and safety in a healthy atmosphere. Two examples are Ignacio School District, and Moffat Consolidated School District #2 — both in under-served rural districts of southwestern Colorado. Both schools received BEST Grants after intensive master planning by RTA and community members.

An evolution at Ignacio

Ignacio School District in Southwestern Colorado’s La Plata County had been saddled with below-standard performance ratings and lack of space for educational programs, and was losing students and staff to neighboring schools. Superintendent Rocco Fuschetto feels the improvements to Ignacio’s schools have had a tremendous impact on the entire community.

Fuschetto said that the district has increased enrollment from 677 students in 2012 (at project completion) to 788 in 2015 — a 16 percent increase. “Our new buildings brought many of the students back, but I believe the overall improvement in academic achievement and the changes we made to the culture of the community — that education is important — was a big factor.

“The beautiful buildings plus our academic improvements have really elevated the perception of the Ignacio District as a high-performing one. The new buildings have changed the attitude of the students and make them feel important. We have had very little vandalism because the students are proud of their new school and the environment of higher expectations. As you walk through the buildings you can feel the pride from the teachers, students and community members. We are attracting better students and staff but all of it is due to the many changes that we have made in the last seven years. We are becoming the district of choice in our area.”

Breathing easier at Moffat

The Moffat PK-12 School sits in the northern San Luis Valley and serves approximately 135 students in this district in eastern Saguache County. The original school was a single-story building, constructed in 1921 and modified in the 1950s, 1982 and 1997. By 2013, the foundation was crumbling and the roof leaking. Other deficiencies included health hazards, lack of technology, excessive operating costs, a poor learning environment, non-ADA compliance, and possible asbestos. The majority of the building systems were beyond their life expectancy.

The new building was designed with a mixture of metal-panel exterior, expansive south-facing windows to facilitate heat gain in the winter months, a state-of-the-art HVAC system and other passive two-story heating and cooling strategies.

Teachers and students are enthusiastic about their new school. A new VoTec space has inspired the Art and VoTec teachers to collaborate in order to offer a different type of teaching that will utilize the building’s full potential. “Our new home has had an incredible effect on our students and staff. The sense of belonging that was created by this building has and continues to make an immeasurable impact,” said Kirk Banghart, then-superintendent at Moffat (now chief facilitator of the Colorado Rural Education Collaborative). Banghart noticed a drop in teacher absenteeism, as well as teacher attrition, which was a problem in the old facility. “Since the new school was completed, we have not lost a single teacher,” Banghart said. “The improvements helped to keep our teachers vested in our school.”

There was also a heightened level of interest in new teacher positions after the improvements were made. “We’re definitely getting new candidates,” he said. “Having a new facility and being able to show off our new technology is an added bonus for our district. Many of Moffat’s students do not experience safe, clean environments at home. Having a safe, high-tech, attractive and healthy environment at school has shown them that they are valued.”

Giving teachers what they ask for

A May 2016 report by Education Commission of the States found that teachers value openness and teamwork, where administrators and teacher leaders work together and communicate with staff. Teachers also cite having little time to reflect and decompress as a reason for leaving.

Flexible, collaborative environments were designed at both Ignacio and Moffat schools. Downtime spaces are reserved for teachers to relax and decompress away from the din of student activity as well as collaborate with colleagues. Day lighting, fresh air and acoustics that minimize ambient noise contribute to a relaxed and healthy environment for all occupants.

Although some intangibles such as “pride in one’s school” are not easy to quantify, keeping the problem of teacher attrition, recruiting and retention front-of-mind during the early planning stages of school design may help architects initiate design solutions that can have a positive impact on complex staffing issues. Engaging staff with open-ended questions early in the design process can lead to constructive idea-generation that may produce encouraging, if not surprising results.

Sue Rose is principal of Rose Public Relations. She launched the Construction Writers Collaborative in 2016 to deliver content for the AEC sector in Denver and beyond. Contact her at sue@suerosepr.com

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