Shrinking High Schools

Designing "schools within schools" lets districts transform their large facilities into intimate learning communities.

The typical American high school is a crowded place.

Statistics from the U.S. Department of Education indicate that more than 70 percent of high school students attend schools with enrollments of more than 1,000, and half attend schools with more than 1,500 students. In many communities, enrollments of more than 2,500 or 3,000 are not uncommon, and some urban areas see enrollments as high as 5,000. Rural areas, where many communities have consolidated facilities, also have seen school populations grow.

Research shows, however, that students perform better in smaller schools. So, how do districts reconcile the desire for smaller schools with the financial reality that larger facilities are more economical?

If approached carefully, constructing large high schools, as well as modernizing large facilities, can allow school districts to achieve smaller learning communities. This can be achieved through the house concept, which is becoming more prevalent in secondary school design, and through incorporating the school-within-a-school concept to varying degrees.

Getting small Research over the past decade has supported the national emphasis on school downsizing. The federal government says smaller schools and more intimate learning communities lead to better attendance, lower dropout rates, fewer discipline problems and better academic performance. It also has been shown that in smaller schools, students are more active in extracurricular activities and teacher morale is higher. Teachers tend to collaborate more with their colleagues and develop closer, more supportive relationships with their students.

But smaller schools present a number of challenges to school districts. The startup costs of opening smaller schools, including land, construction and equipment costs, may be a deterrent to a district faced with a major school modernization initiative. Community members often prefer a larger school environment and the academic options and resources it may provide to students. Many school districts are already operating larger school facilities and are reluctant to discontinue use of these buildings in order to build smaller schools.

Flexible facilities The solution to many of these design dilemmas is flexibility. Most high schools designed today can accommodate a variety of instructional approaches, including a transition from the traditional departmentalized approach to an interdisciplinary approach. Designing the academic portion of a school building into houses enables a district to respond to a variety of instructional programs, while also establishing smaller-scale environments for students. Houses can be used for grade-level groupings, teams or multi-age groupings.

The 1,800-student Avon High School in Avon, Ind., which opened in the fall of 1999, contains six academic houses. The design accommodates both departmental and interdisciplinary team organizational structures. Five of the houses contain adjacent science labs, and the sixth houses extensive classroom and support space for special education.

Each house is clustered around extensive teacher planning and workroom areas, and all are close to the centrally situated media center and a number of specialized labs for computers, communications, foreign language and writing/journalism. In the future, as Avon High School converts to the interdisciplinary team teaching approach, students will be able to rotate within their house throughout much of the day and benefit from concentrated instruction and interaction with a specific set of teachers. Access to technology in each of the classrooms facilitates the option to keep students within the academic house, while operable walls between classrooms enable teachers to provide instruction to larger groups or share resources as needed.

As in most schools designed according to a house plan, the academic area at Avon High School is segregated from the public zone.

That includes sports and recreation facilities, an auditorium, the cafeteria, and facilities for the arts and music.

Central access In order to create academic houses that can operate autonomously, a typical house should contain classrooms, science labs, teacher planning and workroom areas, student lockers and restrooms. Many schools also opt to include extended-learning areas as well as administrative and conference room space.

At the same time, students need ready access to the media center. Today's media centers are flexible, highly used facilities that house reference materials, resource and multimedia rooms, computer labs, instructional areas, conference rooms and a host of other support spaces. Locating the media center near each of the academic houses is a critical challenge in building design and should be addressed early in the planning process.

At Holly High School in Holly, Mich., the second-floor media center lies at the apex of the four surrounding academic clusters. Two separate entries from the academic hallway allow free movement and minimal disruption and noise to classroom areas. The media center includes several ancillary rooms that provide office space, group project preparation space, periodical storage and headend room. Open computer labs facilitate private learning or group instruction.

Holly High School's house concept also reflects a more complete incorporation of the interdisciplinary approach in that the science labs are fully decentralized. Positioning the labs within each house enables science classes to become completely integrated within a teaming situation or an interdisciplinary curriculum.

Schools-within-a-school Many school districts are exploring true school-within-a-school approaches to generate smaller learning communities within larger facilities. This approach - taken to its fullest extent - requires separate administrative spaces within each smaller house, or school, including offices for principals, guidance and career counselors, and other administrative staff. Each school-within-a-school also might have its own large-group instruction space and other support areas.

These smaller school communities also would operate under separate school governments and policies, with separate social activities. Each would report independently to the school district. As school districts move forward with the true school-within-a-school concept, many larger facilities may be modified to support this approach.

Medina High School in Medina, Ohio, is undergoing a major expansion and renovation. Once complete, the school will accommodate 2,400 students in four academic houses of 600 students. In order to reduce the scale of this large school, the facility is essentially divided into two. The two schools-within-a-school will have separate administrative and support space, and even separate food service - truly minimizing the drawbacks of a large enrollment and enabling students to work and socialize within a smaller environment.

Many school districts are seeking opportunities to create smaller settings and more intimate learning communities within larger schools. But it also may be important to introduce unifying elements to enhance the larger sense of community. In an era in which identity and "branding" have become paramount, design elements that unify a school may help solidify its presence within a community and build school spirit and support.

At the new Avon High School in Avon, Ind., for example, the Avon "A" appears in the clock tower over the main entrance to the building, and recurs throughout the interior. Terrazzo floors in the main hallways incorporate an "A" design in a dynamic pattern; the "A" also appears in the balcony railing along the upstairs hallway, in the custom casework in the media center, and in much of the building's accent signage.

At DeWitt High School, in DeWitt, Mich., an interlocking "D" pattern appears as a recurring design theme along the building's masonry exterior. Inside, visitors can immediately access a building directory that features a large, etched-glass sign with the DeWitt High School mascot, a panther.

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