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Building "A Little Something"
Nicholas Johnson

[An April 25, 2002, draft op ed; never submitted; 632 words]

While driving through the California coastal mountain range a couple weeks ago, I was reminded of our school district’s proposed building program.

Over 80 years ago, there was a California businessman who shared my love of camping and hiking. I often pull off the road to check out campsites in national and state parks and forests, and so I went to see his favorite spot as well.

As I’ve grown older I’ve become less enthusiastic about spending the night sleeping on a blanket spread on rocks. Apparently, this fellow also found his preferences changing. History records his confiding to an architect, “I would like to build a little something.”

That’s kind of what our school board came to: the desire to “build a little something.”

Of course, before you can talk to an architect you need to know whether you want to build a courthouse or an outhouse. It’s no less true when building schools.

The Iowa Association of School Boards, not known as an organization of radical rabble rousers, recently addressed school design in an article with the subhead “The Link Between Buildings and Learning.”

It says “facilities should be designed to facilitate what we know today about providing the best possible education. Iowa schools designed [for] large-group teacher-centered instruction” are giving way to “new models [with] more active student involvement.”

“Students solving problems are supported by cooperative, project-based and interdisciplinary learning [and] work in various sized groups.”

“Teachers need more space for traditional lectures, small-group activities, larger panel discussions, independent research and technology-supported instruction. Four to six classrooms are clustered around common student and staff work spaces. ‘Extended learning’ or ‘project activity’ areas allow teachers to combine students into various size groups.”

“Schools are using interdisciplinary, or thematic, instruction. Teachers work together to cooperatively plan, teach and evaluate student success. Dispersing science classrooms near less-specialized classrooms allows for integration of science with other subjects.”

“A traditional high school inhibits the interdisciplinary approach to teaching.”

The article discusses the benefits of alternative schedules, such as year-round. Extended day schedules “can increase extracurricular participation, enhance learning by ensuring time for homework completion at school, and help families now struggling to find quality before- and after-school care."

Schools should be made smaller, not larger. Failing that the use of “houses” or “academies” within a school can create the “personalized atmosphere” that “enhances learning” and insures “fewer students ‘fall through the cracks.’”

The article also discusses the impact of acoustics, ventilation, light and color on learning.

The point is, even the IASB is advocating that we thoroughly think through what it is we want to do inside the school buildings before we build the outsides.

It thinks we need to do more than ask those committed to present ways of doing things how much more space they’d like to have to continue doing the traditional. We need to, as they say in Hollywood, really “take it from the top.”

A failure to do the very hard thinking before calling in the architect can also have quite an impact on the ultimate cost. We’ve already seen a little of that here at home, as the building budget exploded overnight from about $30 million to something more in the range of $80 to $100 million.

It turns out that’s what happened to my fellow camper in California.

What started out as an instruction to the architect to “build a little something” ended up taking 28 years and millions of dollars.

Today his three guest houses – one with 18 rooms – and the 165-room “ranch house” are a California State Park. It’s a facility visited by one million visitors a year.

You may have heard of it. It goes by the name of the Hearst Castle.

Just “a little something” that got a little bit out of hand.


Nicholas Johnson was a local school board member, and K-12 issues newspaper columnist 1998-2001. He teaches at the Iowa College of Law.