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A Sum of its Parts

Many educators feel that students graduating from the small, protected environments of elementary schools are intimidated by the larger, more open environments of middle schools. As elementary-school students, they are protected, spending most of their time in single classrooms and escorted by their teachers to special classes and programs. When they become high-school students, they move independently from class to class, managing their own programs and time. But in between, when they enter middle school, pre-adolescent students often are awkward and insecure as they emerge from childhood, moving from small to large, from protection to independence.

A middle school provides transition, and when it is segmented into smaller units-often called clusters or houses-students spend much of their time in their own classroom clusters and build valuable relationships as they and their teachers get to know each other better. Smaller units foster greater sensitivity to the problems and successes of each student.

While segmenting is not the traditional way of organizing our schools, the idea of schools within schools has ample precedent. The ecclesiastical quadrangle campuses at Oxford and Cambridge universities provide fine historical examples. These large universities are divided into separate residential colleges, each with its own facilities and personality. Each includes classrooms, a library, rooms for teachers, residence-hall rooms for students, a dining hall and a chapel. A student at Oxford or Cambridge has a "small-college experience," but in a large university.

Protection and outreach For the architect or planner of a middle school based on the cluster concept, the challenge is to design units of comfortable scale, intimate and protected, yet with ample opportunities for students to reach out into the larger school environment for various functions and activities. The design must provide facilities that are more varied and complex than an elementary school, yet not on the daunting scale of a junior-high or high school.

Thus, there are two seemingly contradictory notions that drive the design of schools within schools: protection and outreach. Middle-school students are protected from having to venture continually from class to class throughout the entire school, but are invited to become more and more independent. Schools can do this by providing a protected environment for the core group of academic subjects, and encouraging outreach to special subjects and shared facilities.

Design follows pedagogy Exactly which spaces are clustered, and how they relate to each other, must be consistent with a school's academic structure and curriculum plan. That is, understand the pedagogy first, then develop the design to support it. In many clustered middle schools, the core clusters are defined by grade-a cluster of classrooms for sixth grade, another for seventh grade, and so on. In other schools, every grade is represented in each cluster, and sometimes in classes, as well. In some schools, each cluster includes its own special subject classrooms, such as art, music and foreign languages. In others, clusters share the special-subject classrooms. The library, cafeteria, auditorium, gymnasium and other major facilities often are shared among clusters.

Because outreach is an important objective of the middle-school experience, it is vital that the clusters not be isolated from one another, or from the facilities they share. Convenient and inviting passages should connect each cluster to other parts of the school. Entries, corridors and walkways should be direct, logical, easy-to-read paths to move about the buildings and the campus.

When a middle school has multiple buildings, or is one of the buildings in a larger school complex, the courtyard, or quadrangle, also is a key element in how students perceive their academic world. The quad becomes a window through which they observe many of the possibilities of the larger school. It is a space where they meet students from all grades. And if it is surrounded by the buildings, it offers a sense of protection from the world outside the school. The design of a school's outdoor space should be an integral part of the overall scheme, not an afterthought.

As an architectural expression, objectives are met for segmented middle schools by creating layers of spaces. There are clusters-small units, intimate and protected; there are connections-passages that lead to new experiences, expanded vistas and interaction with the wider school community; and there is the big world-the total campus, with its common spaces and shared facilities. By layering these spaces for middle-school students, schools can provide a variety of experiences, and a comfortable transition from small to large.

How an architect or planner may respond to the requirements of clustering may be shown by comparing two quite dissimilar middle schools, grades 6 to 8. The Fox Lane Middle School, Bedford, N.Y., was built more than 30 years ago. Pembroke Hill Middle School, Kansas City, Mo., is a new building.

Building on tradition Fox Lane, built in 1966, was designed for 1,080 students to reflect a pedagogical model developed by a committee of educators from Harvard. There are three academic houses, in separate buildings, each with its own cafeteria/common room. An octagonal central building accommodates the administration, auditorium, library and special classrooms for music and art.

Each house contains students from all three grade levels, and many classes include students from each grade. This is an integrated learning approach in which the school arranges each student's program according to his or her own history and potential.

Teachers do not have assigned classrooms, but move from room to room. To facilitate team collaboration, teachers have common planning times and share work-preparation space.

Modifications now under construction add 20,000 square feet to the original 150,000-square-foot school. An additional building, with a 360-seat common cafeteria and a new library, is being added. The capacity of each house is increased from 250 to 360. The cafeterias in the three houses are converted into needed classrooms. New computer labs in each house are networked to the library. Within the octagonal building, the space liberated by relocating the library is converted to common instructional space for the arts. To meet ADA requirements, enclosed walkways connect the three original academic houses, the octagonal central building and the new cafeteria/library building. The redesign of the courtyard makes the space accessible to the handicapped, defines new outdoor instructional areas and promotes a clear sense of campus.

The new architectural design preserves the original multi-age pedagogical arrangement, but modifies it to create more common spaces. By rethinking the guidelines, it changes the culture of the school from one of insularity to one of greater communication, and provides expanded opportunities for students to reach out beyond their own houses. Finally, it converts the poorly used space between buildings to an outdoor instructional area that is a very real part of the academic and social fabric of the school.

New insight The Pembroke Hill School, a pre-K through 12 facility, is situated on two campuses-one for the lower school and one for the middle and upper schools. The new middle-school building, about 38,000 square feet, is an integral part of the upper-school campus plan.

Unlike Fox Lane, Pembroke Hill does not combine grade levels. The school is organized to support a graded pedagogical arrangement, with a cluster of rooms for each of the three grades. Each cluster includes four regular classrooms, a computer/seminar room and a faculty workroom, all grouped around a small common area.

In addition, there are departmental clusters for special subjects, including a grouping of foreign-language classrooms, three clustered science labs and a cluster of art rooms. Thus, the design of Pembroke Hill Middle School adds a new dimension to the cluster concept, by grouping special-subject classrooms in common departmental suites-special-subject clusters existing side by side with grade clusters. Students have the protection and intimacy of grade clusters, plus the outreach experiences of classes and activities in the special-subject areas, where they have contact with middle-school students of other ages.

Middle-school students have their own schoolwide multipurpose room immediately adjacent to a drama room. They will share the gym, library, cafeteria, auditorium and music facilities with the upper-school students. Integrated computer systems connect all buildings on campus. The buildings form an outside quadrangle.

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