When the SRC’s Facilities Master Plan was unveiled last week, there was some surprise, some relief, and some criticism. Many media outlets wondered why so few schools were being closed when there are 70,000 empty seats district-wide. But, let’s take a closer look at the alleged 70,000 seats sitting empty in our public schools. Do this many empty seats truly exist? Many of us who work in buildings with ‘empty seats’ contend that this number is vastly inflated. Kristen Graham, of The Inquirer, recently reported that 10,000 of those empty seats are in ALREADY closed buildings. SO, why include them in the total? Those seats are already out of circulation. Some parent advocates and educators point out that the number of alleged empty seats seems to keep rising rather quickly.
Although the authors of the facilities master plan insist they counted accurately, I can think of several reasons why they might not have: Special Ed Rooms, Science Labs, Computer/Writing Labs. For example, my school (like many others) has a variety of Special Education classrooms. These rooms are for Life Skills Support, Autistic Support, and Multi-Disabilities students and have a legal cap on the amount of students assigned to them. That legal cap is far less than the 20-33 students a regular education classroom can hold—in some special education classes only 6 students may be in the class. If the people tallying up empty seats mistakenly count the rooms used for special ed classes as being able to hold 33 students, they have vastly over-counted “empty’ seats. In our school, we were lucky enough recently to be able to turn two rooms into a science lab. Although that lab can serve all 400 and some kids in the school, those two rooms can no longer be counted as classrooms that can hold 66 more students than we already have. The same holds for the computer and writing labs that some schools have. Most people believe that the Ohio firm hired to tally the empty seats never went through buildings to see actual use. I do not believe they had an accurate picture of how space is utilized in our buildings. They simply used old data to count classrooms, multiplied by students, then took 75% of that number, and came up with a number of “empty seats”.
The ways space is utilized in schools in the twenty-first century is necessarily different that the way space way used when many of these buildings were constructed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. To give our kids the “Twenty-first Century Education” all the edu-crats keep talking about, space is needed for more than just classrooms crammed to the gills with 33 students apiece (just ask some of the over-crowded Northeast schools). Students need libraries, other research spaces, meeting spaces, and laboratories. If we are going to close schools based on some theoretical number of “empty seats”, the powers-that-be should at least do the hard work of walking through every single building to see how space is actually utilized every day.