Where the California School Facilities Research Institute (CSFRI) Currently Stands

By Don Ulrich, Ed.D., School Strategies & Solutions, LLC

The California School Facilities Research Institute (CSFRI) was established for purposes of seeking empirical data that focused upon the impact of the built K-12 school environment on student engagement and learning.  It was the intent of CSFRI to gather such information to offer educators and school architects a base of knowledge of what works best to support student learning upon which they could rely in the planning of building, rebuilding and the modernization of schools.  CSFRI was formed to serve as a resource to offer independent and dispassionate research information focused solely on the matter of the impact of school facilities on the success of students.  It is the intent of CSFRI to also summarize and share this information for the legislature, policy developers and constituents as they consider prioritizing capital funding to meet their constituents needs within the financial resources available.

CSFRI is composed of school practitioners, architects, bond underwriters and others involved in the unique world of school infrastructure. The CSFRI Board established goals and activities that it believed would offer opportunities to meet the challenges of designing and furnishing schools. At its core, CSFRI is seeking to fund and engage research that would provide empirical data to support what educators know: the built school environment makes a difference in the engagement and learning of students at the K-12 level.

There are numerous stories told by practitioners about what works best in the physical place we call school that impacts learning. Communicating anecdotal experiences has value yet it is not sufficient for the purposes of planning and building schools in this century. There are 977 school districts in California that operate over 10,000 school campuses. In some school districts the support for excellent school facilities is evident while in others a lacking may be seen. CSFRI is intent on the purpose providing research-based information to school leaders and architects and the communities which they serve to offer guidance in serving students in the physical environments we call schools.

CSFRI has sought to find and publish unbiased, professionally researched-based, detailed information that to guide us from work found in California, in other states and internationally. The mission of CSFRI is understanding what is significant in the built school environment and to offer that information to leaders in schools and education policy makers.

In 2016 CSFRI was conceived and its leaders sought donations from private sector members interested in pursuing the research goals identified. Thereafter, the fledgling CSFRI commenced to seek a research entity at a college or university that would be interested in conducting the studies envisioned. Through a competitive RFQ process, the University of Oregon was selected in February of 2021 to conduct the first project.  This initial project commenced in March 2021 and was completed by November 2021. Outcomes and deliverables include a white paper detailing the process, well documented research findings, and next steps recommended to fill gaps identified in the initial research. Here is a summary of the findings:

Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ)

Thermal comfort: Children prefer cooler temperatures than adults.

Indoor air quality: Increased ventilation rates increase student performance.  Conversely, low ventilation rates hinder concentration and test performance.

Lighting: Access to daylight and windows positively impacts student performance.

Views: Views of nature decrease stress and increase student performance.

Acoustics: Children are a high-risk group for chronic noise exposure. Poor acoustics affect student’s learning and communication.

Spatial Environment

School Maintenance & Operations: Ventilation investments are a cost-effective and long-lasting measure to prevent COVID-19 and can increase student performance.

School Design: Schools’ outdoor green space has a significant positive impact on health, learning and academic achievement.

Classroom Organization: Students tend to be less sedentary and prefer active and flexible learning spaces.


Social interactions: Neighborhoods and built environment surrounding the school can create spaces for youth to participate in activities which have been shown to help develop social emotional health and encourage prosocial behavior.

Relationships: When students feel supported, a sense of belonging, and have opportunities to engage in activities, they can have increased well-being as well as better completion and academic outcomes. >

Teaching & Learning: Teachers need flexible and adaptable teaching spaces to accommodate changing pedagogy as well as enhancing innovation and creativity in learning experiences.

Belonging, Safety, and Security: Students who feel a sense of ownership and belonging to the school and community have social and academic success as well as long term trajectories of individual well-being and contributions to society.

Health and well-being (including COVID-19): Buildings and grounds used within and outside of school hours contribute to student well-being, increased physical and mental health, positive relationships, and increased access to student services.

Next Steps for CSFRI

In the summer of 2022 CSFRI outreach efforts took place throughout California (CA) with the intent of sharing our vision and work to date, as well as securing resources to begin our next research projects.  Events were held in Fresno, Sacramento, and Newport Beach to cover the Central, Northern and Southern regions of CA.  At these outreach meetings, CSFRI board members shared the research gaps identified in the 1st project and plans for the topics of future research.  Through this discussion with school district representatives, contractors, and design professionals that were in attendance, a great deal of excitement was generated for these next steps.  CSFRI is on its way to its goal of generating $150,000 in funds to embark on its next projects.  We are considering projects in the following areas:

Live ongoing database of research

Creating an ongoing, “live”, database of the research that was included in our first project with the intent of adding current and future research projects to the database.  The intent is for CSFRI to be the place our constituents go to find and study the latest research that correlates quality school facilities to student learning and success.

Indoor Air Quality (IAQ)

Embark on a project to determine how IAQ (temperature, moisture, CO2, and pathogens) affect the indoor environment and its effect on student learning.

Longitudinal Study

Most research projects found in CSFRI’s first project cover one school year or even a shorter time period.  We would consider a longitudinal study that would measure student learning over a longer period of time.  For example, measuring quality facility components effect on student learning over the kindergarten to 6th grade time period.

We look forward to continuing to implement CSFRI’s vision of seeking empirical data that focuses upon the impact of the built K-12 school environment on student engagement and learning and then share this information with our legislature, policy developers and constituents as they make decisions that prioritize capital funding to meet their constituents needs within the financial resources available.