Unconventional Offerings

The students who do not fit in at mainstream schools. The adults who never received their diplomas. The immigrants and political refugees in America's schools who know little English. To serve these students, more and more school systems have established alternative schools.

For a long time, communities tucked these students away, usually in the most derelict building in the system. No longer. Today, districts are designing alternative schools (or nontraditional schools, as they are sometimes called) from the ground up. This allows the business-focused curriculum to drive the shape of the facility.

Schools mean business Unlike mainstream schools, which aim to provide a broad education, many alternative schools teach their students specific, practical job skills. And, to accentuate this focus on the working world, many alternative schools prefer a businesslike atmosphere.

An office environment can mean anything from an open, well-lighted, professional lobby to an emphasis on computers in all aspects of the facility. Many alternative schools emphasize technology in their efforts to prepare students for work, and they incorporate large computer labs with fax machines, copiers and telephones. These labs must be flexible enough in their layout and wiring to adapt to the continual changes in technology.

Alternative schools typically have close ties to surrounding businesses. Members of the business community may teach classes at these schools, and students may visit nearby businesses on field trips. In addition, some students come and go during the day for internships and outside instruction. This interaction with the business world means the school has to be accessible, with adequate parking and well-marked entrances.

Many of the classes in these schools are jobs themselves, led by specialists from the business community. For example, the surge in computer use has led to a rise in computer repair needs. Schools offer it as both a class and a service to area businesses, and the students gain knowledge and experience.

Different pace Alternative schools offer a core curriculum, but they present the material differently from a mainstream high school. Students don't change classes and subjects every hour. Instead, they often focus on a single topic for a few weeks, during which time they cover four or five subjects. For example, the students may study the rainforest for two weeks; within that time they discuss it in terms of geography, earth science and sociology. At the end of the session, they may write their reports in English and present them in Spanish.

Accommodating this type of curriculum offers facility planners an interesting design challenge. One solution is to cluster small seminar rooms around a central resource area, which, with its combination of computers, books and magazines, has supplanted the traditional library. The students tackle the subjects within the seminar rooms, come into the resource rooms and gather additional information on the topic they are studying, then return to the seminar rooms to discuss what they have learned.

Small and flexible Classrooms in alternative schools tend to be smaller-many classes are limited to 15 or 20 students. Providing a more intimate scale prevents these students from feeling lost, as they might have felt in a larger, 2,000-student high school.

Alternative schools also seek to make teachers more approachable, and foster a mentoring relationship between the teachers and students. Eliminating teacher desks sends students that message powerfully; instructors sit at tables with students in the classrooms, and they share a common workspace with other teachers.

One of the cornerstones of a successful alternative school is flexibility not only of curriculum, students and teachers, but also of space. Consequently, the facilities often include high-quality movable walls. They are substantial enough to keep noise down, but allow schools to reconfigure spaces-hourly, if necessary.

Pretty and tough Choosing the right materials throughout an alternative school is crucial. Your choices should make the environment as pleasant as possible, yet also stand up to heavy-duty use and abuse.

Rather than merely installing brick walls-which are durable, but quite dark-consider concrete masonry, which is easy to paint. And rather than covering the walls in sheet rock, memory vinyl allows you to pin things up and poke holes in the walls without leaving any marks. Ceramic tile, which comes in a variety of colors, is another cheerful option for the walls. Twelve-inch-square pieces can be glued on to provide durability and a light feel. Grout should be a pencil-gray color so if the students mark on it, it is less noticeable.

Ceiling materials also are important. Some students try to take pennies or dimes and flip them up to try to embed them in the ceiling. Although sheet rock is easy to paint, and coins will simply bounce off, it is noisy. One solution is gluing rock face tile, which is thin and absorbs a lot of noise, to the sheet rock. This combination offers both the hard surface and soft absorption.

Use a hard-surface floor in the common areas. For classrooms, a long-wearing carpet is better. It helps reduce the noise, and studies have shown that it helps students feel calmer and more at home.

Let the sunshine in Studies have shown the positive effect of natural light on how children learn. Daylight is even more critical in alternative schools, where a higher percentage of students have difficulty learning, depressing home lives or little interest in school.

Flowing, light, airy spaces, and clear sightlines promote learning and interaction, which alternative schools foster because of their highly diverse populations. Students of all races, religions, backgrounds and ages should feel included. Open spaces make everyone feel welcome, and encourage mixing and mingling.

In addition, open, central spaces and lots of natural light provide a sense of safety craved by people who may be struggling to escape dark, violent backgrounds.

Five years ago, security was a bigger issue at alternative schools than other facilities. The increasing violence in mainstream facilities means this is no longer true, but security remains a priority nonetheless. One method of controlling behavior is to make the school very open and well lighted, with central circulation for easy supervision of the students.

Like daylighting, color is a key ingredient in any school. In an elementary school, the tendency is to use bright, fun colors to fire the students' enthusiasm. However, this is not a good idea in an alternative school because it does not match the businesslike atmosphere these schools have adopted. At the same time, you do not want to create a dreary, dull atmosphere. Primary colors are a good choice, as long as they are muted and soft.

Colors also work well in wayfinding, which can be a particular problem in a school that has many non-English speakers. Other methods of helping students and visitors find their way include signage and hierarchical space.

Special programs Alternative schools try to keep as much of the peripheral student population attending class as possible. This often means providing a daycare for students with young children. It is important to have this space be open, so the parents can stop by between classes and see their children. It also should be well-lighted and cheerful.

These schools also strive to accommodate students who are unable to attend classes. Some have to work; others simply can not function in any type of school environment. A variety of programs allow them to come to school periodically to meet with teachers, pick up assignments and take exams. So, these schools need spaces where teachers can interact with these students.

When Horizonte Instruction and Training Center, a nontraditional school in Salt Lake City, bought a vacant office building in 1993 as its new home, it was faced with fitting tomorrow's technology in yesterday's building. The building, constructed in 1970, was a dark, five-story, 140,000-square-foot box that was ill-suited for teaching children.

"The mechanical systems were shot, the electrical systems were outdated," says Boyd McAllister, AIA, an architect who worked on the project. "We ended up gutting the building, leaving only the structure. That way we could do it right."

School administrators were adamant that the new facility must incorporate technology into all aspects of the learning and work environments. The staff also wanted a building that would not look like a school.

One of the unique aspects of Horizonte is its diverse student body. It encompasses students from 64 different countries; 82 different languages are represented, and ages range from 14 to 85 years. The one element that binds them all together is the computer.

The center accommodates about 1,200 students in the renovated building and services more than 9,300 students around the city, including high schoolers and a variety of adult learners: ESL, basic education, political refugees, new immigrants, unwed parents and students not able to succeed in the mainstream educational system. To reach students unable to attend class in the building, Horizonte is linked by computer to more than 50 public, private and nonprofit organizations.

The architects worked with staff and students to determine how to arrange the building space. The main floor filled up quickly, and many activities that need direct public access-including the main office-had to be placed on upper floors. The use of escalators, elevators, specialized computer signage and electronic imaging makes the building user-friendly.

A large hole was cut through the center of the building to create a five-story atrium. Specially designed shear walls, created through computer technology, made this possible. A large, custom-designed skylight covers the atrium, making the entire center of the building open and light. The central location and openness of the atrium also allows for subtle supervision of the entire student body.

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