In late 2012, HMC conducted a client outreach “Market Survey” to better understand the trends affecting the K–12 market in California. We asked our survey participants to think about the future and respond with some of the more challenging issues that are keeping them awake at night.

The following trends analysis breaks down the K–12 market into four areas of focus:

01 Current Situation
02 What Change is Needed
03 Getting There
04 Making the Project Work

Reduced funding
California State public schools and counties are facing some significant challenges for the foreseeable future. The State’s economic conditions have resulted in drastic reductions in funding affecting operations, infrastructure, and lower levels of teaching staff resources and time to deliver instruction. Consistent with other State-funded organizations, California schools have begun the retooling process to structure their operations to accommodate less State funding in their annual budgets for the foreseeable future.

Overall sentiment among school administrators is that regardless of recently passed State tax initiatives and the future State General Obligation bond anticipated in 2014, they must prepare their organizations for continued erosion of traditional funding sources. This has resulted in many school districts initiating/contemplating local bonds to fund buildings, maintenance, technology and other infrastructure related costs to offset the reduced funding levels from the State.

Adapting to new ways of learning
In addition to the operational changes needed to adjust to the “new norm” for funding, schools are continuing to adapt their curriculum to the federally mandated “common core” requirements and are challenged to find effective ways to incorporate technology into their learning environments while keeping pace with the way students are learning outside of the classroom.

The subject of technology in the learning environment was consistently mentioned as both a challenge and the solution to “how to do more with less.” The challenges were not only associated with the cost to acquire and implement, but also around how to select from so many options; and with new technology comes the need to train staff, develop an infrastructure to support new software programs and hardware, and implement across large districts with consistency and equity.

Rely more on local communities
The new paradigm in public schools is hitting districts on several fronts. Reduced funding from the State is requiring districts to rely more on their local communities for funding, as well as for other synergistic opportunities to join with existing resources (human or capital) to accomplish mutual benefits with limited resources. This was noted through the use of shared facilities and staff operations support among districts and local municipalities. Furthermore, this message is being clearly communicated by the California Department of Education in its recent report on California’s K–12 Educational Infrastructure Investments.

Focus on student outcomes
Secondly, the growing acceptance of technology-assisted learning tools, coupled with the shrinking funds to maintain teacher salaries and accompanying benefits structure, has district staff asking difficult questions about how to leverage technology to improve outcomes while utilizing new methods of teaching. However, teachers unions and collective bargaining organizations continue to resist changes that threaten to erode their positions and benefits within the system. The current structure is perceived to be designed around the staff and there needs to be more emphasis on student outcomes.

Tie funds to improved outcomes
The third element of the new paradigm in California public schools is the anticipated change in how funding will ultimately be administered by the State. With the State actively lobbying for more taxpayer dollars to be committed to public schools, there is renewed commitment to having those funds tied to improved outcomes for students. District officials are closely monitoring this dialogue in Sacramento and anticipating how they might adapt their organizations to align with the new paradigm in funding. Key issues include “closing the achievement gap” for underperforming sub-groups, more rigorous methods of student engagement, and the use of modulated instruction to increase student outcomes.

School districts have recognized the new reality from a funding perspective. Now, how do they adapt to the new reality? Although school administrators acknowledge they have downsized and changed their operations, most recognize that the change process has just begun.

Class sizes / flexibility
Reduced funding is currently resulting in larger class sizes throughout California; however, districts recognize that this solution is short term and that increasing class size using the current teaching paradigm is already having negative outcomes. As a result, districts are planning for adaptability in their classrooms. Ultimately they need more flexibility in modulating classroom environments for the future. Class sizes will eventually shrink again.

Modulated learning
With the proliferation of learning applications intended to be delivered in a variety of approaches, forward-thinking districts are planning for curriculums and environments that accommodate the diverse array of options available. Most of our survey participants acknowledged that they are planning for students to incorporate their own computing devices (tablets, cell phones or laptops) into the daily learning platform and many are already doing this at some level. Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) is a near-term reality, so classroom planning must accommodate how to power these devices and transmit data within the classroom and campus environment. Basic learning of the traditional material can be delivered via online devices thereby freeing up the teaching staff to focus on individual instruction/coaching and project-based learning activities.

This hybrid learning environment is anticipated to enable teachers to better address larger class sizes by allowing a portion of the class to receive online learning while the balance will get more focused attention by the teacher. At the same time, the anticipated result is improved learning results.

Maintenance of schools
For years the State’s system for applying funds to districts for on-going maintenance activities has been woefully underfunded. This was a consistent theme throughout all interview participants with no simple resolutions or ideas coming to the forefront. However, the discussions did center on a few basic concepts:

/    Consolidate and decommission/dispose of underutilized assets or lease out marketable facilities to supplement other capital needs and/or the general fund

/    Build/remodel to maximize efficiency and minimize operational and maintenance costs

/    Better documentation of current infrastructure and the need to increase awareness in the communities that will be called upon to supplement state funding deficiencies

Project delivery methods
The survey participants expressed limited emphasis on utilizing non-traditional delivery methods in constructing and renovating their facilities. The frequent response included the reference to the perception of transparency in the contracting environment. For most participants, design-bid-build is the anticipated model for the foreseeable future, with some discussing the use of lease-leaseback as a fallback method to avoid unscrupulous contractors.

Sustainable objectives
Within the districts we surveyed, we received a consistent message that sustainability was not about LEED, but more about how to minimize costs for both the short- and long-term life cycle of a building. Energy efficiency was critical given reduced operating budgets. We also heard that accomplishing LEED and sustainable building design is just part of good architecture and therefore should not be charged as a premium to the architects’ basic services.

Improving satisfaction with the A/E/C industry
As an architecture firm with very deep roots in the K–12 school market, HMC was particularly intrigued by the responses we received from our school clients. After assessing the comments, we share some of the same concerns. In general, we heard that the architectural community is focused on the clients, but perhaps not focusing on all the pieces of the problems facing school administrators today. We were told that strategies to reduce operational costs are a top priority and that the A/E/C industry is having some success there. However, the industry could be doing a better job understanding the linkages between facilities design and student outcomes. Sometimes there is a tendency to focus solely on the traditionally published school building criteria without attempting to describe how the design enhances student outcomes. We are in agreement with our survey participants that there has been some erosion in the process whereby students’ evolving needs have not remained the highest priority with the design processes that are currently utilized. We acknowledge that we can do a better job on our part to study student outcomes and to provide more creative solutions and innovative thinking that supports the overriding needs of individual schools in delivering on their mission to best educate California’s youth. We also heard our clients asking for help in better understanding technology trends in teaching environments. This was referenced as an important element for the future of the school system to aid in overcoming the significant financial and performance issues facing our schools.

Measure of good design
Many of the responses we received about the value of good design are closely aligned with the specific challenges the school districts are facing today. In our survey we heard that good design “builds support for local bond measures;” essentially demonstrating that local dollars are being well spent. More specifically we heard that good design should be contextual, functional and easy to maintain with an emphasis on the maintenance element. Our clients know they will continuously be challenged to upkeep their facilities.

Download the complete market survey with trend analysis of the higher education, healthcare and civic markets. >>