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Why Does School Capacity Matter? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Why Does School Capacity Matter? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Banner Image

Learning environments are continually evolving – the suburban, Midwestern high school from the 1986 film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off highlights a high school with standard classrooms – 30 years later, high school spaces and classrooms are looking much different. National and state program offerings have increased the number of rooms required in a school which often don’t have substantial student populations. More flexible spaces and classrooms are now needed to support these programs which then affect the capacity within the spaces.

The basis of good decision making is grounded on a strong foundation of facts. Whether your school district student enrollment is growing or shrinking, it is worthwhile knowing your building capacities. 

How is capacity defined?

Capacity is simply the recommended number of students that can appropriately function for the specified task. Each space has a recommended number of square feet per student based on the activity happening and the amount of required equipment in a learning environment. We often describe a space as having:

  • Maximum capacity
  • Functional capacity
  • Board capacity

Maximum capacity looks at how many students a space could support at any one time if every seat was occupied for every period of everyday. Maximum capacity is often unrealistic due to scheduling issues related to room availability and staff availability. Therefore, a utilization factor is applied to the Maximum capacity that better predicts a total number of students that functions for the specific age group the building serves. We typically apply a 90% utilization factor for elementary schools and an 80% utilization factor for middle and high schools. The resulting number is what is referred to as the Functional capacity. Finally, many school districts have a recommended number of students assigned to an instructor based on staff contract language. This number is described as the Board capacity.

Which capacity number should a district use?

Since the Functional capacity ties a student count to the size of the physical space, we often explain this is the most realistic interpretation of student capacity. It’s not uncommon for us to analyze a school which has standard classrooms that range from 700-1,100 square feet, yet the board policy says the rooms should all serve 25 students. Yes, the rooms may be able to fit 25 desks but does the lower range function as well as the higher range? Is there wasted space in the higher range? In the end, the capacity numbers should be compared and the decision should be made by the district with consultation from the Architect.

Why does capacity matter?

This method for calculating school capacity should provide insight as to why a building’s capacity can fluctuate over time. Even though a building may have had a capacity of 650 students, curriculum requirements could reduce a building down to 400 students. As districts incorporate new programs, modern learning furniture and spaces needed to support them, capacities may continue to decrease. This is why building capacity is a fundamental data point as you envision your district’s future.

Ben Stein’s economics class from 30 years ago included rows and rows of standard desks while today’s economics classes offer different learning experiences within flexible environments. Can anyone guess whether the capacity in today’s classrooms are larger or smaller in comparison to 1986? Anyone? Anyone? 

Eric Dufek, RA, LEED AP

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