One Step Beyond

Dec. 1, 2004
Schools and universities get creative in their quest to provide education facilities that rise above expectations.

When baby boomers reminisce about the schoolhouses where they spent their formative years, they may fondly recall dynamic teachers, trusted friends and milestone events. But for millions of them, the classrooms, hallways and cafeterias where they spent most of their time aren't as memorable.

Faced with a postwar onrush of student enrollment that led to fast — and often hurried — school construction, districts across the nation constructed new facilities that were uninspired and often done on the cheap. The double-loaded corridors that symbolized the education factories of the 1950s and 1960s did little to enhance the learning environment for students.

But in the latest wave of school construction and renovation that has provided billions of dollars worth of new facilities over the last several years, school officials and designers have devoted greater attention — and resources — to the touches that transform educational facilities from pedestrian places where students and teachers serve their time to engaging and well-thought-out environments that make effective teaching and learning a reality.

School designers and educators continue to accumulate knowledge about the conditions that can make an educational environment more conducive to learning. They can tap breakthroughs in technology and equipment to provide students and teachers with facilities that use energy efficiently, offer better safety and security, provide good air quality and proper acoustics, take advantage of daylighting strategies to spread natural light throughout a facility, and offer varied spaces where students can explore different learning styles.

In some cases, the result can be lavish, elaborate facilities that become icons for the surrounding community. But it also can involve subtle touches or small innovative ideas that provide a different flavor to a facility.

A new metaphor

As the Maplewood Richmond Heights (Mo.) District near St. Louis prepared to build a new elementary school for grades 2 to 6, superintendent Linda Henke pondered the question of what would be an appropriate theme for a 21st-century school.

“We wanted to look for a metaphor to think outside the box,” says Henke. “If we didn't think of our school as a factory, what would the metaphor be? We came up with the idea of a museum and building knowledge.”

The result is Maplewood Richmond Heights Elementary School, which opened in the fall. The museum metaphor manifests itself most visibly in each of the building's classroom pods, all of which have copious amounts of display, or “exhibit” space.

“We want to give a greater authenticity to displaying children's work,” says Henke.

Instead of bulletin boards randomly arranged on walls and displaying student work chosen arbitrarily to fill space, the school emphasizes the importance of displays as a teaching tool.

“There is a lot of presentation space in the school that is framed perfectly, not haphazardly,” says Jason Pierce, an architect with Bond Wolfe Architects who designed the facility. “The students are aware that they will put their work up for display, and that raises the quality of the work. It elevates the thought process. They use their creativity to make their work presentable to visitors.”

Enhancing the museum feel is the school's library. It sits at the heart of the school and has no walls. This gives students continual contact with items on display there.

“The library has low shelves, so artifacts can be displayed,” says Pierce. “Everything is there for a purpose. The librarian is like the curator.”

To carry out the museum concept successfully, the school needed to have sufficient amounts of shelving, casework and other storage space.

“Often, storage space is cut out for cost reasons,” says Pierce, “so in many designs it may not be given the attention it deserves.”

Each classroom also is equipped with interactive whiteboards that sit on mobile carts to maximize teachers' flexibility. “We have put electrical and data outlets in a couple of places on every wall so the teachers can use them where they want,” says Pierce.

The design steered away from elements often identified with primary grades.

“We wanted our kids in a sophisticated environment,” says Henke.

Pierce says the school design opted for a more sophisticated color palette, not the primary colors typically found in elementary schools. “There is adult-sized furniture and full-height counters. That's what students encounter in the rest of the world,” he says.

Those touches also help the school be more welcoming to after-hours use by those in the community.

Shared space

Schools have targeted programs for gifted students and programs for struggling, at-risk students, but in many cases the students in between go through their high-school years without any special focus on their needs.

The Martin County, Fla., district teamed with Indian River Community College to build a facility and establish a program to provide those “middle-majority students” with a program geared toward their interests and goals. The Clark Advanced Learning Center opened earlier this year on the community college campus in Stuart, Fla., for about 200 11th-and 12th-graders.

“It's meant to attract those students whose talents and interests go in a little different direction,” says Rodger Osborne, director of facilities and planning for the Martin County, Fla., district. “The equipment and technology is state of the art.”

Students take advantage of the more intimate setting and are able to earn high-school and college credit for the courses they complete. The 34,000-square-foot facility has 12 classrooms and laboratories that surround a central “knowledge room” equipped for collaborative research and project-based learning.

Joseph Sorci, president of Florida Architects, Inc., which designed the facility, says it provides opportunities that aren't available at other high schools.

“The middle-majority student gets bypassed all the time,” says Sorci. “In a smaller setting, they feel they're in their own group, and they help each other.”

The classroom walls in the center can be opened to accommodate lectures and guest speakers, or closed to form smaller groups.

“The programs are hands-on, collaborative and project-based,” says Sorci. “They can get in touch with experts from all over the world on two-way video, or they can have experts locally in the room with them.”

Many of the programs focus on the latest technological advancements — information technology, digital media, e-commerce and eco-technology.

“It's a much more open, college-type setting,” says Osborne. “It's a mixture of a workplace and college campus.”

Because of its setting on the community college campus, the college is able to use the facility in the evening for classes.

A big gamble

For several years, a growing trend in school construction has been smaller schools, where students can receive more individual attention and staff members are able to know each other and all the students. But in some districts, administrators are dealt a hand that makes building small schools a bad bet. Yet, with proper planning and careful design, a large school can provide a learning environment that goes beyond the norm.

That's what officials in Cicero Elementary District No. 99 believe they are providing for seventh- and eighth-grade students at Unity Junior High School, the largest junior high school in the state of Illinois. To the dismay of many advocates of small schools, the facility, which opened in 2003, has a capacity of 4,000 students.

“Big schools are certainly not in vogue,” says John Ochoa, president of FGM Architects Engineers, which designed Unity. “I think (district officials) knew some of their peers would question their decision, so they were determined to do this right.”

Cicero, which abuts the western boundary of Chicago, is an older community that is completely built out. Older residents have moved out since the 1980s, and younger families with children have replaced them. Enrollment has swelled from about 5,000 students 20 years ago to more than 13,000 today. At the same time, the city's tax base was eroding as many industries pulled up stakes for greener pastures, leaving behind land contaminated with chemicals and other hazardous materials.

Building more elementary schools or small junior-high schools with 600-student capacities was out of the question, even if officials had found some way to pay for them without overburdening taxpayers; the district would have needed six or seven junior highs, and that would have meant large-scale condemnation of residential property that could have decimated neighborhoods.

“The district was caught in a vise,” says Ochoa. “It was landlocked; its tax base was stagnant; there was very little space available on which you could build a new school.”

The district identified a centrally situated space large enough to accommodate a junior high school, but it was an old industrial site that raised troublesome environmental issues that had to be overcome (sidebar, p 22). After resolving those issues, the district pressed on with plans for a mammoth junior high facility.

“The best use of space was to make it a junior high and relieve crowding at the elementary level,” says Ochoa. “The challenge was how to do it without it feeling like a jungle or Grand Central Station.”

Double your pleasure

The solution, says Ochoa, was to use some of the strategies he and his architectural team had learned when building small schools and apply them to Unity. The 442,000-square-foot facility is designed as two entirely separate schools under one roof. Each school has its own principal, staff, cafeteria, arts and music facilities, and classrooms. The two schools share physical-education space and a central media center.

“Each school is broken down into houses of 250 students,” says Ochoa. “Most of the time students are within their own house. We took great pains with wayfinding to make the school easy to navigate. Each zone of the building has a different color code.”

In addition to the design, the Cicero district strives to minimize the large-school ambience by how it assigns students.

“The community has significant issues with gangs, and district officials did not want the schools or house identified with any particular geographic part of town,” says Ochoa. “A student that starts in a house in seventh grade will stay with those teachers in that house through eighth grade. A sibling one grade below will end up in the other school.

Although students may refer to their school as East or West, the facility has just one name and one mascot in order to minimize the chances of the two sides of the school developing rivalries.

The design provided spacious stairways and plazas to avoid congestion and the conflicts that can arise from crowding.

“We supersized the common elements, so it didn't feel super-crowded,” says Ochoa. “There are wide stairways so the kids aren't jostling each other. The hallways are wide, and the students' lockers are in their homerooms. The school has spacious cafeterias with two ways to go through the line to ease potential congestion.”

The crescent shape of the building makes the long hallways feel less imposing. “The corridors are long, but your vistas are short,” says Ochoa.

The Northeast Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects singled out Unity for praise with a “Distinguished Building Award.” The organization noted that the design brings “the scale of the large spaces … into one that is more manageable by its younger students.”

“This is probably going to be the only 4,000-student junior high school we're ever going to do,” says Ochoa. “It was an unorthodox solution. But they had unorthodox problems.”

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

Clearing the ground

The site chosen by Cicero Elementary School District No. 99 for Unity Junior High School was hardly problem-free. The 18-acre parcel had been abandoned nearly 20 years earlier after serving as an industrial site since the early 1900s.

“Over the years, various operations at the site included metal work and upholstering on carriages, manufacturing of household appliances, munitions casings, automotive and farm equipment,” according to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. “The decades of manufacturing left behind concerns of industrial contamination.”

The district spent $10 million over 15 months to demolish all the structures on the site, remove more than 65,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil and clean up the site.

The Center for Brownfields Initiatives at the University of New Orleans gave a “Community Impact Award” to Unity for resurrecting the abandoned site for community use.

“The brownfields redevelopment turned an eyesore into a valuable community resource,” the center said. “Unity Junior High School is a large-scale public project that represents outstanding cooperation between state and local governments, and construction, design and environmental firms.”

About the Author

Mike Kennedy | Senior Editor

Mike Kennedy, senior editor, has written for AS&U on a wide range of educational issues since 1999.

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