Planning a space for your school
Learning can happen anywhere. As a new school this means you have a wide range of potential spaces where you might launch your school. But there are likely requirements you need to meet based on your objectives, and for compliance with regulations.
In this section we ask questions designed to help you define your requirements for your school facilities, and outline many of the common needs that should be taken into consideration as you prepare to open your school.
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There is a beautiful thing about designing your own private school – there is no right or wrong answer to this question. Schools exist in office buildings, in churches, in homes, and in multi-million-dollar custom-built campuses. In the bigger scheme of things, the building you’re in does not define the quality of your school or the opportunities you’re able to provide for your students. Don’t get too caught up in what is ideal and know that you can always modify your space and/or relocate as your school grows and your needs change.
So, you’ve thought about your budget and the money you might need to set aside for a physical location to have your school. What other considerations should you be thinking about?
How much room do you need?
If your initial student enrollment is relatively low, it really changes the game as far as how much physical space you need for your school. If you’ve got a hundred (or hundreds) of students, you’re obviously going to need more space. Start to think about what is realistic for the size of the school you’re starting off as. You can always expand or move once you’ve outgrown your current location.
Do you need a kitchen / lunch space?
If you’re going to be providing food for your students, you open up a whole bunch of things to think about and find out. In addition to the physical space for a kitchen and lunch room and the equipment and seating that goes along with it, you’ll need to make sure you are in compliance with any requirements for storing, preparing and serving food. Most counties or states do require inspections of kitchens, though some jurisdictions have different requirements for schools than for restaurants. You’ll want to check the state pages for more information and consult local health department officials as well.
Note also: some funding is available from the National School Lunch Program for offering lunches to students who qualify. You’ll find specific information about that on your state page, too.
Do you need space for physical education and/or outdoor activities?
Depending on the age of your students, and in some cases the state regulations on recess/physical education time, you may need this kind of space. In some areas use of public parks or access to playgrounds at nearby churches or other facilities might be an alternative to maintaining your own outdoor space. Your state may also have requirements when it comes to fencing in outdoor spaces for young students, so this is something to consider as well.
Can you get creative or share space?
Depending on the space you need and your connections in the community, you may be able to sublease space for your first year or two until your school grows enough to expand your location. If your school has a religious affiliation – or even if it doesn’t - sometimes a local church or temple will have classroom space that is unused during the week. You might find a local business that has extra conference rooms or other spaces that can be rented at a reduced rate. Even empty commercial spaces for offices, warehouses and retail have been successfully used for schools. Don’t be afraid to explore nontraditional options, rather than running out and buying or leasing space in a traditional school building right away.
Legal requirements for facilities in the area where you are hoping to open your school can sometimes be more difficult to pin down.
Your local municipality is usually responsible for fire codes, number of exits, accessibility for people with physical disabilities, number of bathrooms, and many other specifics for schools. In many cases, an inspector will have to come by prior to school opening.
Your best resource for ensuring all of these requirements are met is to reach out to your municipality, or in some instances, the county, and ask about building codes and requirements for schools. They are usually more than happy to provide you with the specifics required by law in your area.
School security is an important consideration, both in the budgeting process, and as you begin to prepare for the first day of classes.
A common starting place for thinking about this is the drop-off and pick-up procedures for your school. How is your pick-up area configured? Is there a safe place for cars to line up and for students to wait? Who will check students in and out? How will you keep track of who is and isn’t allowed to pick up a student? (Note, this is an area where good school management software like Twine can help.)
Once students are safely dropped off, how do they access the school? Does everyone come in one main entrance, or will they be streaming in from different areas? Are the doors locked once school starts? Who will be responsible for watching the students as they walk into the school?
Another consideration is how school visitors will be handled. Do you have a sign-in process for parents and other guests? Will they be required to wear name badges to identify themselves?
Complying with safety and accessibility requirements is also reinforced by some laws. What are your local codes for fire systems, emergency exits, ADA accessibility, locations and numbers of bathrooms and sinks? Many of these considerations will come to light as you prepare for inspection prior to opening, but there may be things you need out of your school space that aren’t required by code. For instance, in some older buildings, ADA compliance can be waived allowing narrow halls or small bathrooms. This may work for you now, but what will you do if you have a wheelchair-bound student enroll?
Furniture entails a whole lot of items from one corner of the school to the next.
In the front office/administration area, you’ll probably need file cabinets, desks, and chairs for administrative staff at the minimum. Chances are you’ll need places for visitors to sit and wait, too.
In each classroom, you’ll need a desk and chair for the teacher, as well as some kind of seating arrangement for students. This could be traditional desks, multi-student tables, or maybe something else, so this is the best time to think about embracing some other options for student seating. Teachers will need some kind of classroom storage, as well. Bookshelves, cabinets, and/or cubbies are good classroom furniture options.
As far as acquiring all of this furniture, you have a lot of options, depending on the quantity you need and whether you’re willing to pick up used furniture to save some money.
If you’re willing to have used furniture and perhaps some items that don’t match perfectly, some great resources include local universities, school systems, hospitals or large local businesses. Public school districts, for example, sometimes offer older furniture at a steep discount when new items are purchased. Universities and large businesses tend to do this as well and can save you large amounts of money. A web search for "surplus" alongside the name of your local school or business will often turn up details for where and how surplus furniture is sold.
There are hundreds of online retailers who sell school furniture both new and used, and so choosing may become more a matter of personal preference, estimated delivery times, and the specific items you’d like to pick up. Some of the top sites for classroom furniture are Worthington Direct, Lakeshore, and even discount furnishing retailers such as Wayfair.
There are a lot of small items that schools go through in surprisingly large quantities – paper (both lined and for printing), pencils, markers, chalk, tissues, bathroom supplies, etc. Some options for stocking up on these include:
Shopping in bulk at a warehouse store, such as Sam’s Club, Costco or BJ’s.
Food / drink
Whether you provide a school lunch, and what types of food you will serve is a matter of personal choice based on your students, parents, and their preferences. Depending on how many students will need lunch each day, you could contract with a food service provider in your area to bring in food and drink. Otherwise, big warehouse stores such as Costco and Sam’s Club are a great way to get large quantities of food and beverage at a low price.
Hopefully technology came up previously, as you were working on aspects of your curriculum and business plan. In well-planned schools, technology is used for a combination of back-office and operational tasks, as a tool for marketing and parent communications, and to support student learning. From a purely physical standpoint, common considerations include:
Computers / tablets
Your school will almost certainly need computers for staff, a printer (or multiple, depending on your school size) and internet connectivity.
A common question, though, is what, if any, devices to provide to students. With educational technology becoming more and more important, many schools are engaging in 1:1 initiatives, where each student is issued their own computer or tablet from the school to use for school work, both in class and at home. Other schools opt for a BYOD (bring your own device) program, which relies on families providing hardware for their children. There are pros and cons to both types of programs; the right decision for you will ultimately come down to your vision for how technology will be used, and what sort of budget you are able to allocate for this initiative.
TV’s & displays
Many schools opt to have displays in each classroom for announcements, educational programming, and other needs. Depending on the size of your school, you could have a multimedia cart or classroom media projectors instead, which are shared between multiple teachers.
You’ll want to have some kind of telephone system, at least for front-office staff. Some schools extend telephone service and/or voicemail to classroom teachers also.
Increasingly, organizations are turning to VoIP phone services, which use the internet to connect phones and make calls (think of something like Skype, but with the option to connect physical phones and manage phone extensions centrally). Advantages of VoIP phone systems include the ability to easily scale up or down, lower overall costs, and flexibility to take calls in a variety of locations and from a variety of devices.
Two of the leading players in commercial VoIP systems are RingCentral and Vonage, with many other quality providers entering the space in recent years. With VoIP phone service you may need wired connections for your VoIP phones, to ensure minimum quality for Internet access.
Other internal technologies
You’ll likely have some kind of networking/wireless set-up, so staff members can access email, gradebooks, and online resources from their computers. Unfortunately, your $100 wireless router from the local big box store isn’t going to offer reliable wireless to the entire school, so you’ll have to invest in something a little more powerful.
Network Computing published a good article in 2016 about considerations for planning a wireless network. Recently, products from Aerohive and Merkai have received a lot of attention in the education space. There are many other quality vendors for wireless hardware as well. Alternatively, you could chose to have only wired connections to the internet, but you’ll want to think about the ability for students to easily connect – wireless is more flexible in this respect.