Report: Iowa City high schools' capacity lower than believed

School board receives facilities report from consultant

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The old way of calculating a school’s capacity no longer applies in the 21st century, a consultant for the Iowa City school district said Monday night.

That means how many students a school should hold also has changed, Sam Johnson of BLDD Architects, told a district committee made up of public and community members.

That could have big implications on the growing Iowa City school district, where conflicts have occurred in recent years over school enrollments.  A majority of the district’s schools are at or over capacity, including the two comprehensive high schools, BLDD found.

BLDD, headquartered in Decatur, Ill., was hired to physically assess the district’s schools to help with the development of a long-term facilities plan to deal with increasing student enrollment.

A steering committee aiding it that process met for the second time Monday night and reviewed BLDD’s findings. The report, the result of the firm’s architects and engineers walking through each of the district’s buildings, touched on four areas: physical needs, educational adequacy, security and capacity.

On capacity, gone are the days when a teacher only lectures to students sitting in rows of desks, Johnson said. Now, different methods are used, like project or group learning, which may require more space.

Johnson said he often hears from people who wonder why their school had 1,900 students in the 1970s but now he’s saying the school's capacity is 1,300.

The answer, he said, is there are a lot more requirements and needs for space now than in decades past. Special education and computer labs, for example, use space that in the past went to regular-education classrooms.

Some people already have expressed surprise at BLDD’s capacity number for City High School: 1,300 students. City High’s capacity has been thought to be 1,600.

BLDD put West High School’s capacity at 1,700, down from 1,800.

City High has about 1,400 students this school year and West High more than 1,900. The school board on April 2 is to review a new report on enrollment projections.

The community has been divided in recent years over when, and even whether, the district should build another high school, and how this report affects that debate remains to be seen. Overcrowding in elementary schools, particularly in eastern Iowa City, also has received increasing attention recently.

Even with the facilities assessment and new enrollment projections, capacities will not stay static.

Capacity is based on how a classroom is used, and BLDD looked at programs that were in buildings now. As usage changes – say a preschool space becomes a sixth-grade classroom – capacity will need to be recalculated, officials said.

“I think the end result is capacity becomes a lot more fluid than it used to be,” said school board member Jeff McGinness, who is co-chairman of the steering committee.

The public will get a chance to weigh in on the development of a facilities master plan at meetings April 6, 8 and 9.

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