In what is probably the biggest investment in school furniture in decades, the Boston Public Schools spent $8.5 million on 55,000 new desks, chairs, bookcases, computerized whiteboards, and other furnishings this school year.
“That is a massive amount of furniture to put into our schools over the last six months,” said John Hanlon, the school system’s chief of operations.
The purchases are part of Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s $1 billion effort to modernize most of the city’s 125 aging school buildings. A facilities assessment in 2017 revealed a critical need for new furnishings, with more than three-quarters of the city’s schools receiving a rating of “fair” or “poor” for the quality of the desks, chairs, and other furnishings, many of which were several decades old.
The new furniture is more than cosmetic and is intended to support learning in a 21st-century classroom. That means, for instance, that many desks and chairs are on wheels so it is easier for students to break into small groups for classroom assignments or projects, and white boards are connected to computers so they can download information from the Internet.
Every school got an allotment of money on a per-pupil basis that took into consideration the condition of furniture in the school. Staff could choose from an online menu of pre-screened items by the School Department, based on a public bidding process.
The Joseph Lee K-8 School in Dorchester received about $180,000, enough to redo 11 of 40 classrooms with ergonomically correct desks and chairs, bookcases, stability balls to sit on, and wobble stools, which move in all directions. The school, which assembled a committee of teachers and other staff to make purchases, chose classrooms that have students with disabilities integrated into them.
“We realized some of our classrooms didn’t provide the best opportunity for students with special needs,” said Kimberly Crowley, the principal.
The effort has encountered some backlash since the school system took to social media over December break to trumpet the initiative, posting photos showing reams of worn furniture jammed into storage facilities accompanied by pictures of the new desks, chairs, and other items. A few teachers complained that some of the yoga balls were not holding up well, while some of the wobble chairs and desks were too tipsy for younger students.
The school system is planning another wave of furniture purchases for an additional $5 million. The old furniture will be sold or reused in the school system.
Here’s a closer look at what BPS bought:
472 free-moving chairs with attached desktops
Alvin Cooper, a fifth-grade teacher at the Joseph Lee K-8 School in Dorchester, has nicknamed the free-moving chairs in his classroom the “Disney Tea Cups.” His students sit in lime-green chairs on wheels with adjustable desktops, enabling them to easily break into small groups or scoot closer to the whiteboard for a better view — without having to stand up and walk.
All that activity can be jarring at times, said Cooper, who began his teaching career 28 years ago, when students sat in rigid rows of desks, but he is a fan of allowing students to choose a seating arrangement that works for them.
“You can learn where ever you want and however you want,” he said.
6,020 wobble stools
Wobble stools, which replace traditional classroom chairs at many desks, have a rounded bottom that allows students to move in all directions. The stools are designed for students who fidget a lot, giving them a way to burn energy while still being able to focus on classwork. The seats have prompted some rules in many classrooms. Among them: Keep two feet on the ground, and no spinning on the stool.
2,587 stability balls
Stability balls, a staple in many gymnasiums for exercising, enable wiggly students to shift around while helping to strengthen abdominal muscles. In many classrooms, the balls are secondary or novelty seating, not the main attraction. But at Boston Latin Academy, the seating has been so popular in some classrooms that the balls are now plagued with leaks and a few of them — totally deflated — have been exiled to a photocopying room.
Erica Ford, a teacher and school system parent, said one ball popped when one of her students sat on it this fall and another has repeatedly deflated at a fairly rapid clip during class. At first, she thought one of her students was playing a joke on her. “All of a sudden I could only see her head over the desk,” she said.
Ford said she supports the idea of updating furniture and likes the new tables and chairs that can easily be re-arranged in the library for classroom lessons, but thinks the stability balls need to be of higher quality to support hours of sitting by older students.
Say goodbye to those one-size-fits-all desks that have been a fixture in classrooms for centuries and often were not a great fit for all students. That’s right, lefties no longer are forced to make do with one of those chair-desk combos designed for right-handed people. Today’s desks allow students to adjust the height, whether they choose to sit or stand.
360 privacy nooks
The schools’ new egg-shaped reading nooks are somewhat reminiscent of the egg-like spaceship that Robin Williams used in the 1970s sitcom “Mork and Mindy,” Hanlon notes. The idea is to give students a nurturing environment to read a book or write independently with minimal disruption. The space has been hugely popular.James Vaznis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.