Editorial: Back to School

The District Education Centre for the Surrey School District symbolizes a commitment to consolidating and partnering on projects that address 21st-century teaching challenges. Ema Peter
The District Education Centre for the Surrey School District symbolizes a commitment to consolidating and partnering on projects that address 21st-century teaching challenges. Ema Peter

September is back-to-school season and the month is marked by a noticeable increase in traffic associated with school buses and carpools. Inside our chronically underfunded and overcrowded public schools, life is more hectic. Teachers must constantly adapt to increased demands on their schedules while school administrators and trustees struggle to address the evolving complexity of student needs. Financing the upkeep and expansion of the public school system remains a perennial challenge that negatively affects the innovative design of educational facilities. Is the architectural profession able to keep pace?

Many of us are aware that our elementary and secondary school systems are undergoing considerable change. Teachers have become more like coaches while students are less inclined to listen to a “talking head” at the front of the class. Open-concept schools are coming back. To help streamline the delivery of an education offered to as many different types of learners as possible, provincial governments across Canada are experimenting with online tools to help maximize a student’s potential. Meanwhile, tablets such as iPads, smart phones and near-limitless software applications continue to provide a mix of distractions and useful learning tools for teachers, students and parents. Beyond evolving teaching methodologies, innovative school design at the elementary and secondary level of education remains slow to materialize.

Schools are complex building types. Their definition of success is determined by various stakeholders and includes input from provincial authorities, academics, unions, private-sector interests, trustees and parent advisory councils–all of whom constitute a vital network of partners required for progressive design.

Innovation through partnerships occurs when local social-service agencies, non-profits, and businesses work together with school boards to develop a rich palette of student learning experiences. These can range from ArtsSmarts, a non-profit organization that brings teachers and artists together in the classroom, to large corporations pursuing e-learning technologies like Desire2Learn, which recently received funding from the venture capital arm of OMERS, the Ontario-based pension fund for teachers.

With provincial governments looking to streamline teachers’ salaries, they are also having an increasingly difficult time finding the necessary resources to build, or even maintain existing schools. With limited funding available, school boards across the country must look at inventive ways to maintain the delivery of extracurricular activities, teaching support, and programs for children with special needs. This is where real estate partnerships can enhance the effectiveness of the public school system. In recent years, discussions relating to the disposition of school assets to finance new or renovated schools have gained favour as a viable option to raise capital for school projects. Many school boards across the country sit on sizeable real estate portfolios that were amassed decades ago. As the value of these holdings has increased, it is now desirable for a given school’s underutilized property to be sold or leased. Provincial governments view these properties as valuable public assets for delivering education and community services, but reconsidering how these assets can benefit both the students and the community will inevitably lead to imaginative and progressive city-building ideas.

It remains to be seen how the new era of educational partnerships will translate into architecture. One example might be in Surrey, British Columbia. In 2010, B+H Bunting Coady completed the District Education Centre for the Surrey School District, the largest school district in the province. The education centre was designed with the latest generation of sustainable design strategies and serves to consolidate the Surrey School District’s administrative capacities while symbolizing its commitment to managing 21st-century teaching challenges. In addition to its elementary and secondary schools, the Surrey School District has five learning centres, three adult education centres, an online learning program, and many satellite and interagency programs serving a range of intellectual, social and economic student needs.

The need for innovative partnerships extends beyond the simple task of delivering a school curriculum. Educational partnerships provide opportunities for schools to become rich with diverse learning environments, thereby leading to the enhancement of architecture and design excellence in our public school system.

Ian Chodikoff ichodikoff@canadianarchitect.com