When They Tried to Steal Our Classrooms

By Amy Lindahl

Illustrator: Christiane Grauert

Christiane Grauert

I was speaking to three students about their lab project when a small slap hit the classroom table behind us. When we looked over to identify the source of the noise, I was stunned to see a small brown mushroom broken into pieces. A student looked up. “Ms. Lindahl, there are mushrooms growing out of the ceiling.”

Despite my background in mycology and my current role as a science teacher, this was no experiment. This was the state of our school building. Soaked ceiling tiles had provided a fungal breeding ground. This wasn’t the only sign of age around our building. Water leaks pooled in stairwells, in hallways, and on classroom floors. Dripping water tripped the library fire alarm on especially rainy days. Our old windows and the ancient heating system created wild temperature fluctuations throughout the building. During warm months, many rooms heated well above outside temperatures and students slumped in their seats. Other rooms chilled students to the bone. My heating pipes clanked with such vigor that we joked an angry troll with a hammer must be living inside my classroom radiator.

Yes, our building was falling apart. And this would be a dangerous place to experience the imminent Cascadia earthquake. When Portland voters approved a $482 million bond to repair dozens of elementary and middle schools and rebuild three of our district high schools, it was a cause for celebration.

The Future Looks Bright

After the bond passed, we learned that our high school rebuild would begin in summer 2017. The renovation of the two other high schools identified in the bond would precede our project.

Our staff headed into the first meeting on school redesign with both excitement and apprehension. What would this process be like and how would we be involved? Our presenters started with the timeline for design and construction.

Then teachers were introduced to a corporate-sounding term: 100 percent utilization. What was it? In the new high school, all those extra, unused areas of the building would be put to “efficient” use. Planning time, we were informed, was a terribly antiquated use of a classroom. Teachers could use offices. These would be ideal places to collaborate with coworkers and meet with students. Why not open that room up to another teacher and another class? This way, classrooms could be larger and no single teacher would clutter up the space. It was more like college—and isn’t the college experience better than a traditional high school? This, architects and district managers told us, is the future of high schools throughout the United States, is already popular abroad, and is backed by research. We would teach in a 21st-century building to the great benefit of students and staff.

The audience’s response was less enthusiastic. Teacher brows furrowed and many moved from shock to anger. Teachers across disciplines were dismayed at how these plans disrespected classroom space, the specific needs of high school students, and the work and craft of teaching. After the meeting, teachers could be heard uttering their concerns: “100 percent utilization? More like 100 percent chaos.”

What’s a Classroom For?

I began to think about the many ways high schools are not like colleges. I easily imagined student scenarios that filled me with worry: an ELL student struggling to comprehend complicated teacher room changes when he needs help outside of class; a special education student trying to finish a lab during her study skills class and finding me in a room without lab supplies; a student waiting to privately share a story about a health struggle or personal loss, only to find me in a shared office space, surrounded by other teachers and students. It was clear to me that this plan put my most vulnerable students at the greatest risk. The plan disregarded what teachers do in their classrooms when they are not teaching. I thought about my frantic prep periods, spent in the mad rush of setting up or breaking down hands-on activities and labs. I thought of students who came in during my prep time to work on missed lab activities and retake proficiency tests. Didn’t my district support these types of assessments and student-centered activities? Didn’t they understand the extra work teachers did to make all of this happen? Additional obstacles, I predicted, would decrease the odds that teachers would attempt hands-on activities or offer retesting. I imagined a school in which teacher lecture dominated over other teaching strategies.

Rather than magically improve the quality of teaching and learning, this model added additional burdens to a teacher’s time, always in short supply. I saw the unraveling of teacher patience and organization. Even that promise of increased collaboration could fray under the pressures of room sharing and additional time spent in transition.

Also lost in this vision of our future school was an understanding of what teachers do with a classroom they call their own. Every summer before school starts, many of my colleagues spend extra, unpaid days experimenting with different classroom layouts. What furniture arrangement will work best for discussion, lecture, hands-on group work, student movement, and classroom management? Can everyone see the teacher and screen easily? Are materials and turn-in trays located in the right places? As the year proceeds, teachers move their furniture and materials around to suit a new unit or lesson.

The walls of a well-used classroom are much more than decoration. Indeed, for most teachers, they are an essential part of the curriculum. Foreign language teachers use walls to provide launching pads for hesitant speakers. Art teachers immerse their students in galleries of work to showcase and inspire. Language arts and social studies teachers post thesis and evidence walls to guide and propel students as they write. Science teachers display the experimental work of past students, introducing the voice and images scientists use to communicate their ideas and their findings.

What would our classrooms be like when they lost their sense of place and meaning? I thought of our 14-year-old students, starting high school in classrooms that lacked the distinct feeling of a home away from home.

Despite my concerns, which matched the concerns of most teachers throughout the building, I was afraid these changes were a done deal. The two other high schools, whose redesign had preceded our own, had fought the same fight. These schools, as compared to our own, serve more working-class families and more students of color. Their fears about the consequences of the 100 percent utilization model were even more acute. At these schools, teachers presented their perspectives and participated in building design sessions. Some staff volunteered countless Saturdays and evenings in the hope their voices would be heard. The district countered with slight increases in the number of classrooms but, in their final building plans, the number of classrooms was still drastically insufficient for the projected student populations. Classroom sharing would be the new normal. And these buildings were already under construction. When I asked a teacher from one of these schools what happened during their design process, her eyes welled with tears and she looked away. She told me she was too disappointed and disillusioned to help us.

Even before the fall all-school meeting, science teachers in our school met with district planners for a “stakeholder” meeting. The district project manager informed us that 11 science teachers would be using seven science rooms. We would share cubicle space in offices when we weren’t teaching. If we needed to move during passing time, we could store our lab materials in drawers, cabinets, or on carts for quick set-up. We were assured that we would appreciate the benefits once we tried the new model. When our department began to describe the problems with these plans, we were told this model was required in the Ed Specs (education specifications) and that design elements like teacher offices were not up for debate. The Ed Specs, we learned, were minimum requirements that the project manager and architects had to include in the final building plans. Much larger classrooms, teacher offices, and student work spaces came at the expense of a sufficient number of classrooms. The meeting was contentious. Teachers within our department and throughout our school began to talk about how we might fight back.

How We Organized

I began to seek out more information about the claims we had heard. What was the 100 percent utilization model? Had it really been successfully employed in so many other recently constructed school buildings? Initial internet searches yielded only business articles about corporate attempts to push employees to their theoretical 100 percent work capacity. Was this an omen?

Beyond our own Ed Specs and some notes from Portland school board meetings, the term appeared to be new to high school building design (although the concept was not). To learn more, I requested research about the model from our project manager. Although two of the articles she shared made interesting cases for the benefits of shared office space, none involved research into the benefits of classroom sharing. In fact, one article extolled the effective use of classroom walls and noted the problems teachers experience when they inhabit a classroom only temporarily. The promised data were nowhere to be found. What else, then, might explain this decision? I believe that this model is really about extending school enrollment far beyond traditional limits so our booming city population will continue to fit into our new schools. But these neat mathematical results fail to address serious negative consequences classroom sharing has on both teaching and learning.

We needed to organize our efforts. Eight teachers at our school—representing science, social studies, music, math, and language arts—began to meet three times a week during lunch to organize our resistance to the plan. We decided to research real examples of this model. Could we visit schools or learn more about places where the 100 percent utilization had been tried? We also wanted to reach out to teachers in our district who had recently been through their own redesign process. What arguments did they make and what ground had they gained? We realized that we needed input from teachers in other subject areas in our building so we could better describe their specific concerns. Since teacher concerns at the previous schools had been largely unheeded, we agreed that our arguments should be directed at the school board rather than at the district project manager and the architects. They were tasked with implementing the Ed Specs, not critiquing and altering them. The school board alone had the ability to make changes to the model. We recognized the injustice that, if we were successful, the inequities in our district would further increase, with two higher-poverty schools forced into the 100 percent utilization model while we escaped the same fate.

We created a staff survey to get a sense of how many teachers were concerned about the model and what their concerns were. We passed it out during a staff meeting and asked for input. We also asked teachers if they wanted updates on our work and/or wanted to participate with our planned activism. I began to send regular emails to interested staff about our efforts and how they could help.

Two of the teachers on our team volunteered to join district staff on visits to 100 percent utilization schools in Seattle and San Francisco. They reported back that many teachers were too harried and overwhelmed to talk to visitors, but hinted at disorder and stress throughout the building. We learned of a high school near Portland that had been constructed nearly 20 years ago on a similar model. While unmonitored student areas sat unused and collected dust, teachers and students suffered from the lack of classrooms for years until, ultimately, they were built back in. Wherever we looked, we found more evidence that our fears about the model were justified.

As evidence against the 100 percent utilization model mounted, we became more confident that our concerns could sway our school community and those with decision-making power in the district. At a staff meeting in November, the architects presented initial plans for our new building; the reality of the Ed Spec requirements hit our teaching staff with new intensity: We saw a building with a significant loss of classrooms. We learned that the school board would vote to approve the building design in a month. The need to act was urgent.

Our group of teachers co-wrote testimony for the next school board meeting. Ethan Medley, a physics teacher on our team, would present our case. In his three-minute public comment, Ethan laid out the practical problems with the model and also presented ethical problems with 100 percent utilization: “Which of our students will be most impacted—those with resources and strong school engagement or those most likely to struggle in school? This is very much an equity issue. We believe these structural changes will create deeper disparities based on income, learning disabilities, language ability, and race.”

We also elicited help from a student. We asked a senior, Sprout Chin, to prepare and present testimony about the importance of classrooms fully inhabited by her teachers. She spoke to the board about the emotional support she found in these spaces. Sprout shared tales of the social isolation she felt her freshman year as she came to terms with her sexual orientation. She described how queer students are often in need of safe spaces at school. When teachers can be easily found in their classrooms outside of class time, classrooms can provide a safe haven for vulnerable students.

After making our case for the problems with the 100 percent utilization model, we wanted to provide the board with possible solutions. Our team began to co-write testimony for the next school board meeting. Mary Rodeback, an English teacher on our team, would be our next presenter. Mary, Ethan, and I gathered on a Sunday and combed through the 298-page Ed Specs. We identified problematic spaces required in the plans: teacher offices, places called “smaller instructional spaces,” and “extended learning areas.” The teacher offices would function as shared cubicle space for teachers during their prep time. The other rooms would function as mostly unmonitored student work space. All told, these required spaces would take up at least 23,000 square feet in our new building.

When Mary presented at the next board meeting, she argued that requirements for these spaces should be struck from the Ed Specs, particularly in cases where they forced classroom sharing. She pled with the board to reconsider the minimum requirements. After her presentation concluded, a discussion between board members and the superintendent began. If the requirements that forced 100 percent utilization were removed now, one board member questioned, what would that mean for schools already under construction? Although the superintendent said that the Ed Specs could be reviewed by a district department and a board subcommittee, it was not clear what next steps would be taken. We left the meeting hopeful that our message was beginning to be heard but with no clear assurance that our district would act.

Our teachers also attended redesign community meetings on nights and weekends. At one, we passed out a handout detailing problems with the Ed Spec requirements. We gathered the email addresses of concerned community members. If the board refused to act, we hoped to engage current and future families in our fight.

As the deadline to impact the school design loomed, our teacher team decided I would present testimony to the school board subcommittee on school improvement. At their next meeting, the subcommittee would hear formal plans for our high school building design from the lead architect and project manager. This would be followed by a board vote, approving the building plans.

By now, we had the attention of our principal, project manager, and architects. At a stakeholder meeting, science teachers were told they would each have their own lab classrooms. Then, our principal and project manager attended one of our lunch meetings to present their plans and see if they could gain our support. Now, we were told, teacher offices would be built as fully functioning classrooms, so these spaces could take on either use. The size of classrooms was also decreased throughout the building, allowing for more classrooms within the set square footage. These changes trended in the right direction, but the plans still showed a loss of classrooms.

Then, joined by two other teachers, I presented my testimony to the school board subcommittee. I thanked our principal, project manager, and architects for their work to find more classroom space in the plans. But I also pointed out the inherent problems with the model they were working so hard to accommodate. I spoke against the 100 percent utilization model—not just for us, but for schools already under reconstruction and for those schools that would be rebuilt if the next bond is approved. Then, we listened as the project manager and lead architect presented the building plans, including a careful description of all available teaching space. Although the Ed Spec requirements were largely intact, more classrooms had been carved out throughout the building.

Later that week, our teacher team met with the principal and project manager after school. We asked that small, noninstructional areas be built in pairs with removable walls, so they could function as classrooms if the school grew to projected numbers. We asked that other noninstructional areas be built with regular walls so they could function as classrooms. During the course of this meeting, we finally saw classroom counts that matched current numbers and additional spaces that could easily convert to classrooms if the school grew. Still apprehensive, but sensing victory, we agreed that these plans could work.

As I looked at the revised building designs, a feeling began to grow in me. Not just relief, but real happiness. Now we could finally feel grateful for this bond. The new building would keep us safe, not just from earthquakes and rain, but from the design innovations of district planners. Here was a building that could serve both the academic and emotional needs of our students.

Once the school board voted to approve our altered plans, I reached out to teacher leaders at the other schools further into the rebuild process and shared our three teacher testimonies. I emailed the board members to ask that they revisit and vote on changes to the Ed Specs. I argued that they must help those schools already under construction. Only one board member responded and, although he agreed with our concerns, he thought it was too late to change plans for the other schools.

But how can it be too late if these buildings are over a year away from opening? The inequities of outcomes at different buildings pain and appall me. The 100 percent utilization model will affect generations of students in my district. Recently, I met with a team of teachers from one of the schools already under construction and we spoke about the inequitable design changes made at the three schools. They will continue organizing against this model, even as the odds are increasingly long.

Classrooms and the Future

Our feelings of relief and victory were transitory, at best. At a recent staff meeting, we were informed by our principal that our building design is “6,000 square feet over” what can be built. What this means for classrooms is unknown, but I’m alarmed; we are all weary from the fight. As the school year speeds to a close, I’m afraid of what might get decided, without teacher input, in the next months.

I also fear for what will happen throughout our district, both in the near and distant future. If the next bond passes (which I hope it does), three new schools face the same battle. I worry about schools throughout our region and country, and all those who work in buildings that lack sufficient classroom space. Why must teachers, already overburdened with the responsibilities of teaching, have to take on this fight? I hope that this design trend will slow and eventually reverse, in recognition of what works best for students and teachers. I also hope that teachers, when faced with unworkable design plans, find ways to organize and speak back to power.

When we have the rare opportunity to create a new school, we must demand that building designers deeply understand what classrooms mean to students and teachers. We must not assume that “innovative,” top-down reforms from educational and architectural “experts” will improve our schools. When our instincts and classroom experience tell us that a reform is detrimental, it is time to speak up, organize, and act.

In some ways, this struggle over building redesign is emblematic of the broader struggle to defend public education from the corporate school reformers. This vision of how to “reform” our school building did not originate with teachers, students, or the community our school serves; it was the product of efficiency experts, people who operate within a profit-and-loss business paradigm. Like other top-down reforms, the building redesign failed to take into account the perspectives of the people who actually do the work or the students affected.

The best work that happens in schools can never be captured in a simple equation, but the complex work of teaching and learning can certainly be harmed by those who think that this is possible. As we fight for updated and safer buildings, we must also work to assure that we are designing the spaces that our students need and deserve.

Amy Lindahl teaches science at Grant High School in Portland Oregon. Her most recent Rethinking Schools article is “Blood on the Tracks: Why Are There So Few Black Students in Our Science Classes?” (Summer 2015).