Special Places

Generations ago, it was common for young students to learn their reading and writing in the same classroom as older siblings studying more advanced lessons. For those people educated in one-room schoolhouses, having separate buildings for elementary school, middle school and high school would have been considered the ultimate in specialized facilities.

But the specialization of school facilities has not ended there. Educators continue to seek environments that can enhance a student's learning experience. Many education institutions have established separate, narrowly focused facilities to meet the specific needs of a subset of students: pre-schools for toddlers getting their first exposure to education; sixth-grade centers to help pre-teen children make a smoother transition from elementary to middle school; ninth-grade centers to help adolescent students adjust to the perils of high school life; alternative high schools for at-risk students who have been unsuccessful in traditional programs.

Charter schools, private institutions and magnet programs that focus on specific curricular areas create a need for specialized facilities. In higher education, students are likely to find themselves in buildings with specialized classrooms and laboratories as they pursue majors or advanced degrees in particular subject areas.

These specialized facilities may look different or serve a more narrowly defined clientele than a traditional classroom building, but designers and administrators approach both kinds of projects with the same goals: meeting the educational needs of the people who will be using the facility.

“Different clients have their own needs and standards,” says Ben Elliott, an architect with Lord, Aeck & Sargent. “Every building is unique at many levels.”

At the beginning

The growing acknowledgement of the importance of early childhood education in recent years has fueled an increase in specialized facilities for pre-schoolers. According to the National Center for Education Statistics Common Core of Data, U.S. school districts reported 5,616 schools offering pre-kindergarten programs in 1986. By 2003, that number more than quadrupled, to 23,757 schools.

The number of schools housing pre-kindergarten and no other grade levels also more than quadrupled in those years, from 157 in 1986 to 710 in 2003.

The Lee's Summit, Mo., district joined the ranks of those with a specialized preschool facility in August when it opened the Great Beginnings Early Education Center. Spurred by a $2 million anonymous donation and a matching amount collected through fundraising, the district provided another $2 million to make the center a reality.

The 34,200-square-foot facility houses the Early Childhood Center, which serves about 300 preschool children with special needs or developmental delays. It also is home to the district's Parents As Teachers program, which serves nearly 3,000 children from birth through age 5.

“It's a more focused design,” says Randie Fager, an architect with ACI/Frangkiser Hutchens, which designed the center. “It really wouldn't make a good elementary school. It's really specifically designed for an early childhood program.”

The design reflects the fact that the building's students are 5 years old or younger.

“We use a lot of colors and shapes for wayfinding — they don't read yet, and they're just learning their numbers,” says Fager.

Accommodating students with physical or mental disabilities requires another level of specialization.

“We needed to pay closer attention to humidity control and mechanical systems,” says Fager. “The classrooms have windows for parents to observe their children from the corridor.”

The building also has space for occupational and physical therapy, and the playground includes equipment that is accessible for students with disabilities.

Districts planning new elementary, middle or high schools often don't have the administrators or staff selected prior to the beginning of the design process. But in designing the Great Beginnings center, the staff and students already were part of an existing program and had clear ideas of what they wanted in their new facility.

“We spoke a lot with the principal and the staff, and gained a lot of information,” says Fager. “It was critical to work directly with the user groups to get their input.”

Because such early education centers are relatively uncommon, the views of the building's constituents played an essential role in defining what the building would be.

“This is not a cookie-cutter design. It is what the district wants for their early childhood center,” says Fager. “The next one we build may be completely different.”

Easing transitions

Students who stayed in the same school from kindergarten through 12th grade didn't have to worry about acclimating to a new facility every few years. But most students today move to new facilities as they progress from elementary schools to middle and high schools. Concern about how students adjust to those changes has led some school systems to embrace another type of specialized school facility: a building that accommodates a single grade.

The Pasadena (Texas) district has built one new facility and converted another to serve as fifth-grade centers. The new schools have freed up space at several of the district's elementary schools.

Freeing up space at middle schools was the motivation in the Fort Worth (Texas) district for establishing sixth-grade centers.

“We had several middle schools that were way too large — more than 1,000 students,” says Sue Guthrie, an assistant superintendent in Fort Worth.

Several years ago, the district began converting former elementary schools to sixth-grade centers. Fort Worth now has six buildings dedicated exclusively to sixth grade.

Guthrie says the former elementary facilities were appropriate for a sixth-grade program, and the district did not need to make any major renovations to ready the buildings for their new assignment.

“The staffing patterns and the leadership of the principal are what is important for the school to be successful,” says Guthrie.

In the Katy (Texas) district, administrators focused their concerns on the transition from middle to high school.

“It's a pivotal point where you can lose kids coming into high school,” says Ron Keller, an architect with PBK. The district converted a former junior-high building to a ninth-grade campus to keep students in their first year of high school mostly separate from the older students at the school. The success of that campus prompted Katy officials to bring in PBK to design additions at its other high schools that would serve as ninth-grade centers.

“It gives ninth-graders the feeling that they're on the high-school campus, but it gives a little shelter,” says Keller. “They are isolated, but connected. It's like a fish hatchery — they're protected in their environment. They get an extra year to grow up.”

The additions are attached to the rest of the high school, but also have separate entrances. Keller describes them as “three-fourths of a complete school.” They have their own cafeterias, gymnasiums, locker rooms and administrative space. The ninth-grade centers don't have spaces for band, orchestra and fine arts, and except for physical-education classes, the athletic programs are housed in the main high-school facilities.

Science project

Science labs require specialized spaces, and that specialization becomes even more pronounced on a university campus, where researchers are pursuing ever more complicated and sophisticated projects.

Designing a complex higher-education science facility requires careful attention to health and safety issues, as well as factors that could interfere or compromise the research.

Architects from Lord, Aeck & Sargent and Gould Evans had to address such issues when they designed the Biodesign Institute on the campus of Arizona State University in Tempe.

Ben Elliott, project manager for Lord, Aeck & Sargent, says the Institute's design takes into account the highly sensitive nature of the research. To prevent building vibrations from affecting sensitive measuring equipment, the building has 18-inch concrete slab floors, and the labs are situated on the lower levels of the facility that are less subject to vibration.

To prevent electromagnetic interference, the building “avoids metal use when possible,” says Elliott. Half-inch-thick pieces of low-carbon steel line one of the building's elevator shafts so that the movement of the elevator car won't cause electromagnetic interference.

Because university research projects come and go, officials wanted flexible lab space that could accommodate frequent program changes. “All the benches and casework are on casters and movable,” says Elliott.

The utility services are contained in overhead carriers that are easily accessible. “We were trying to accomplish a ‘plug and play’ concept,” says Elliott.

To accomplish Arizona State's goal of creating a culture that is highly collaborative, the laboratories are designed to be open spaces.

“There is a huge atrium that becomes a meeting point,” says Elliott. “All-glass walls let you look from offices on one side into the atrium and into the lab space on the other side.”

The first phase of the Biodesign Institute opened in 2004, and construction of the second phase is scheduled to be finished this fall. Eventually, the Institute will have four buildings linked by atriums and green space.

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].


Sidebar: Arts for at-risk students

The Artists for Humanity was founded in Boston in 1991 by artist Susan Rodgerson to provide at-risk teenagers with opportunities to study and practice art. Through after-school and weekend apprentice programs, the students, primarily from low-income Boston neighborhoods and between 14 and 18 years old, would learn from painters, sculptors and photographers.

Last year, the organization finally found a permanent home specifically designed as a space to teach and learn about art. The 23,500-square-foot Artists for Humanity EpiCenter includes fine-arts and commercial studios, as well as an exhibit gallery and offices.

“It's an entirely program-driven building,” says Kathleen Born, an architect with Arrowstreet, which designed the facility.

The space is designed to be flexible; its interior walls can be easily rearranged. The design sought to create a building with as many sustainable features as possible: photovoltaic cells that generate electricity; windows on the north and south that maximize daylighting; interior walls made of clear corrugated acrylic that enables daylight to reach interior workshops; and a rainwater collection system that provides irrigation for the grounds.

The building has been submitted to the U.S. Green Building Council for LEED certification at the platinum level.


Sidebar: Shifting configurations

Specialized facilities such as sixth-grade centers or ninth-grade centers highlight the continuing efforts of educators to settle on a grade configuration that will provide students with the most effective education.

In the past 30 years, the U.S. education system has shifted from one where junior high schools for grades 7 to 9 were prevalent to one where middle schools for grades 6 to 8 are the most common. Data from the National Middle School Association shows that in 1971, 45 percent of middle-level schools had a grade 7 to 9 configuration, and 16 percent had a grade 6 to 8 configuration. By 2000, only 5 percent of middle-level schools had a grade 7 to 9 configuration, and 59 percent had grades 6 to 8.

The actual number of ninth-grade centers among public schools nationwide is difficult to assess, because some of them are not categorized as separate schools. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, ninth-grade centers that are considered separate schools are rare, although growing in numbers. In 1986, the NCES identified 54 schools with enrollments that served ninth-graders exclusively; that number climbed to 124 in 2003, but is minuscule compared with the 13,454 schools nationwide that served grades 9 to 12.


Grade breakouts
Configuration 1971 1981 1991 2000
5-8 7% 8% 11% 10%
6-8 16% 25% 40% 59%
7-8 24% 22% 24% 17%
7-9 45% 33% 19% 5%
Other 8% 12% 6% 9%
Source: National Middle School Association
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