Out of the Box

May 1, 2001
Schools established in non-traditional settings can solve space woes and give students a different perspective that sparks learning.

All across the United States, new school facilities are opening, and it typically happens this way: Administrators find a site with enough space to meet their needs, and soon construction workers are moving earth and pouring concrete. Eventually, a building rises that is recognizable to students, educators and community members as a school.

But what if a district can’t find—or afford—the acreage within its boundaries to build the facility it needs? Or what if a school administration decides it wants to create a learning environment that breaks away from the conventions that dictate what a school building and a classroom should look like?

Those scenarios are happening more frequently as schools try to find enough space to handle growing numbers of students and try to create environments that encourage and inspire students to learn.

Students attend classes in shopping malls, former grocery stores and bakeries, office buildings, airports, theaters and museums. The unconventional settings can provide a change of pace that sparks the imagination of students. But schools that choose non-traditional locations for their classrooms should take steps to transform such spaces into places where students can learn.

“There are enormous resources out there to connect to kids in an ongoing and meaningful way,” says Steven Hamp, president of the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Mich., which is home to a 400-student high school.

Finding a home

Schools often take up residence in non-traditional locations because they have nowhere else to go. This is especially true of charter schools, many of which don’t have the financial resources to acquire enough land for a more typical facility.

According to the Charter Friends National Network, “locating and financing facilities has been the most daunting challenge.” In its report, “Paying for the Charter Schoolhouse,” the network noted than in one state, four of 10 charter schools that had been approved could not open in the fall of 1997 because they were unable to find suitable and affordable facilities.

A 1998 study of charter schools by the U.S. Department of Education says, “Although some new schools have been able to move into district-owned facilities or closed private schools, many must depend on retail space in need of refurbishing.”

A North Carolina charter school operated in a movie theater and a nightclub before finding a former school building. A school in Minnesota set up shop in a former sheet metal plant.

In some urban settings, little open land is available for a school district to build a new facility. That was the case in the Cartwright Elementary School District, which covers 14 square miles in Phoenix, Ariz.

“We were pretty much landlocked,” says Rick Conrad, assistant superintendent for financial services in the Cartwright district. “We had no site available for a middle school.”

The solution came when a local developer offered to sell, at a bargain price, part of a 500,000-square-foot area shopping center, the Maryvale Mall, that was mostly vacant. The low price meant the district could afford the renovation needed to transform the retail space into a school—actually, two schools. The former mall will accommodate both a middle and an elementary school.

“The key was getting the facility at a price low enough that it was feasible,” says Conrad.

The facility needed a new roof, wiring for technology, and other upgrades to comply with school regulations. The district incorporated some of the malls features, such as skylights, into the educational setting. The mall’s wide hallways make student traffic flow more smoothly.

“The design is a lot more flexible than in our other schools.,” says Conrad. “There’s not a lot of built-in shelves.”

The Cartwright district opened Atkinson Middle School last year; another part of the former mall will house an elementary school. The student areas of the schools will be separate, but the district will save costs by having one kitchen for both school cafeterias. Staff members from each school will share office and lounge space.

The mall provided another benefit for schoolchildren. It had housed an indoor soccer arena, which district officials easily converted to a gymnasium—the district’s only one in a middle school.

Redefining school

Some schools are in non-traditional space out of necessity, but others intentionally seek out unique settings in an effort to provide students with different and more challenging learning experiences.

In Raleigh, N.C., 168 middle school students attend classes each day on the campus of a downtown museum. The Exploris Center opened in 1999. It targets children from age 8 to 14 and emphasizes the importance of making global connections.

Museum officials decided to establish a charter middle school at the facility as a laboratory for global education curricula and as a demonstration site for innovative teaching methods. Because the architectural plans for the museum were already in place, Exploris found space for the school by buying a church’s Sunday School building that was adjacent to the museum site.

Pam Hartley, vice president of programs for the Exploris Center, says the museum gutted the building and created three suites—one each for grades six, seven and eight. Each suite has two 1,000-square-foot classrooms with a teacher’s office in the middle.

But those aren’t the only rooms where students get an education.

“The students are in the museum every day,” says. Hartley. “Their lessons are frequently connected to the actual exhibits.”

In addition, students enhance their learning by routinely using other resources available nearby in downtown Raleigh—the State Capitol, state archives, the symphony, even a homeless shelter.

Unique opportunity

While the Exploris Middle School is in an adjacent, separate building, the Henry Ford Academy in Dearborn, Mich., takes its connection with a museum one step further. The charter high school is “embedded in” the site of the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, says Hamp, the museum’s president.

The museum made room for the school by rehabilitating existing space on its grounds. Using existing infrastructure allowed the museum to create a high school for less than $7 million. The freshman classes are housed in the main museum building. The space has movable walls to allow for flexibility. Glass walls allow students to see out into the museum and patrons can see what is going on in the classrooms.

The rest of the school is based in Greenfield Village, about a mile from the museum. All the school facilities were designed so that they blended in with the existing displays.

“We protect the ambience of Greenfield Village pretty vigorously,” Hamp says.

In one instance, existing railroad cars were retrofitted to house classrooms.

Every day, the students’ classes take advantage of the exhibits and artifacts on display in the museum and village, as well as the resources of many of the facilities of the Ford Motor Company, which helped create the school and whose headquarters is nearby.

“Students may learn English in the house where Robert Frost lived while at the University of Michigan as poet laureate, conduct science experiments in Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory, or do research in the museum library, containing more than 25 million historic papers and primary sources,” the school’s web site states.

Hamp says the academy is an effort to expose students to all the learning opportunities available to them in the museum’s vast archives and exhibits, and to have a lasting impact, which isn’t always possible on an afternoon field trip.

“Museums are educational institutions, but as a sector, we have been slow to document what that value is,” says Hamp. “We have done a poor job with adolescents.

School systems that are willing to take advantage of the facilities and resources beyond the traditional schoolhouse can open up new worlds of learning for their students.

“We need to look at all the places education can occur,” says Hamp. “Not everyone can learn sitting at a desk with a pen or pencil. “Not just museums. Let’s bring in performing arts, courts, libraries and businesses and figure out how we enter into the mix.”

SIDEBAR: Learning in the mall

It’s not unusual to find teen-agers congregating in malls. For years, kids have flocked to these retail meccas to shop or just hang out. Educators took note and wondered if students who weren’t successful in a traditional school setting might perform better if they felt better about where they were going to school.

So in recent years, many alternative school programs for at-risk students have sprung up in shopping malls amid the food courts, Foot Lockers, and Old Navys.

“The mall is a natural setting for learning to take place,” says Arny Bereson, executive director of the Simon Youth Foundation. “It’s neutral territory. It’s a socially acceptable place where students feel comfortable.”

The foundation, created by the Simon Property Group, a mall developer, has established more than a dozen school sites, which it calls Educational Resource Centers, in malls across the nation. The foundation typically form partnerships with a local district or a consortium of districts. The foundation provides the classroom space; the school districts are responsible for staff and curriculum.

“This is for students who don’t do well in traditional settings,” says Bereson. “A lot of these kids are bright, but bored. It’s clearly not the best solution for everybody, but we are looking for opportunities to engage students.”

The facilities at each site are similar—a large community room and several smaller units for self-paced learning. The mall location also allows students to take advantage of internship opportunities with businesses in the shopping center or mall management itself.

After school hours, the space can still serve an educational purpose. Many sites offer community education courses.

As classes in malls become more common, people might begin to judge schools not by what they look like but by how well students learn.

“In 10 years, people might think of a mall setting for a school as almost semi-traditional,” says Bereson.

SIDEBAR: Do your homework

Before taking over a former retail space, school officials need to make sure that the previous tenants didn’t leave behind problems that could harm students. Rick Conrad, assistant superintendent with the Cartwright Elementary District in Phoenix, Ariz., says that prior to the district’s purchase of a former shopping mall, the facility was checked thoroughly for asbestos and other potential hazards.

Part of the site had housed an automotive business, so the district tested to make sure there was no oil contamination. School officials also tested the structure of the mall itself to ensure it had not deteriorated while it was uninhabited.

“You have to do your homework before you get in there,” says Conrad.

When placing a school facility in a retail environment, districts also need to be vigilant about who the neighbors will be. In the Cartwright district, the mall developer still owns about a third of the property, and the presence of the school could revitalize the area and attract more businesses.

“We controlled that as part of the purchase,” says Conrad. “The space cannot be rented for inappropriate or incompatible uses.”

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