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Modern Thinking

Welcoming educational innovations to campus.

If only a teacher could just stand at the front of a classroom and lecture students as they sit in neat little rows of desks. If only those students would stay in those rows and not break up into smaller groups and learn from each other instead of the teacher. If only computers, digital projectors and smartboards didn't eat up so much valuable classroom space.

If only the world stayed the same, schools and universities would be able to continue using the same classrooms, labs, libraries and other spaces in the same ways they have for years.

But, fortunately for students, education institutions have evolved as teachers and administrators embrace more effective instructional techniques and take advantage of ever more astounding technology.

Still, that progress can be expensive. Facilities and equipment that might have lasted several more years now have to be overhauled or replaced because educators are finding more and better ways for students to learn. But schools and universities serious about providing high-quality learning environments are continually looking for ways to make their campuses welcoming to educational innovations.

More than a library

The library that serves cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point was built in 1964. In the intervening years, the nature of libraries has changed. Once thought of mainly as a storehouse of the written word, library facilities in schools and universities have morphed into multimedia, interactive learning centers.

By the 1990s, the school concluded that the facility could not keep up with educational demands of the students and faculty. A plan to address the need worked its way through the government bureaucracy, and now a 151,000-square-foot building is under construction on the West Point campus. Named Thomas Jefferson Hall, the six-story granite structure is set to open in 2007.

“It will have many more functions than a traditional library,” says Price Jepsen, director of facilities planning and programming for the architectural firm STV. “It will be a center of learning for students to meet and work together.”

Over the years, the West Point library continued to accumulate materials, and the stacks were squeezing out space for the cadets to study. Other schools might have the option of culling older material from their shelves, but West Point was not in a position to do so.

“As a government facility, it has historical and archival responsibilities,” says Jepsen, who is project director for the Jefferson Hall project. “They don't weed their collection.”

So the new facility is designed to hold 1 million books. In addition, it will have numerous media rooms, computer rooms and collaborative spaces. The building will be able to accommodate wired and wireless technology.

“When they started planning eight years ago, it was still a desktop environment,” says Jepsen. “Now everyone has a wireless laptop. The system will have the ability to be upgraded and changed because things may be obsolete in a few years.”

The facility also will house West Point's Center for Teaching Excellence, where, Jepsen says, “they set up a test classroom to try new technologies or techniques and determine if they are useful and worthy of wider use on campus.”

As a military campus, West Point needed its library to accommodate the school's distinct characteristics.

“The cadets' schedules are more regimented,” says Jepsen. “At West Point, thousands of students eat breakfast at the same time, have their military training and their extracurricular activities at the same time.”

That also means they do their studying and research at the same time — in the evening, after completing their other mandatory activities. And that means that the design of Jefferson Hall has to accommodate those usage patterns.

“There are more peaks and valleys in use of the library and other facilities than there might be on a campus where the student population has more flexible schedules,” says Jepsen.

The rigid schedules and time constraints also mean cadets rely on the library as a place to interact with other students.

“Students need more places to meet and work together,” says Jepsen. “There are no Starbucks nearby. They need to provide collaborative space on campus — in the library.”

New icon

Nearly 90 years ago, Cass Technical High School in Detroit opened an immense facility that helped educate many who went on to work in one of the dominant 20th-century American enterprises — the automobile industry. The school became a city icon and was considered the flagship facility for the district.

But now it is the 21st century. The city of Detroit and the auto business have changed drastically — and so have the educational needs of today's students. The aging Cass Tech building, still an imposing presence in downtown Detroit, wasn't meeting those needs effectively.

The school was considered one of the city's premier education institutions, with a tradition of accomplishment in fine arts and athletics, as well as science and technical studies. But the classrooms in the aging building were too small, and the library, gymnasium and science labs were cramped and outdated.

“Some of the classrooms had pillars running down the middle,” says Jeffrey Boes, an architect with TMP Associates.

District officials decided to erect a new Cass Tech. The 404,000-square-foot, six-story edifice opened in 2005 adjacent to the old school.

Cass is a magnet school with selective enrollment, and each of its 2,200 students selects one of seven “curriculum pathways” as the focus of his or her studies — Arts and Communications, Business and Marketing, Engineering and Manufacturing, Health Sciences, Human Services, Natural Resources/Agriscience, and Science and Arts. The building is designed specifically to accommodate those pathways, says Boes, the project designer for the new school.

“The new school has four levels of classrooms,” says Boes. “Each floor has one or two curriculum pathways. There are rooms at the end of each floor for collaborative spaces.”

The collaborative spaces take on the characteristics of the pathways they serve — some are more oriented to science, some cater more to art students, and some are geared for computers and technology.

“We designed it so the spaces would be flexible,” says Boes.

Boes says the design team encouraged the staff at Cass Tech and the community it serves to be involved in planning the new building.

“We set up a half-dozen meetings with parents and the community to help us understand what they wanted to see in the school,” says Boes. “If we had dealt just with the (district's) central office, we probably would have ended up with a more generic school.”

Like the old Cass Tech, the new building is situated on a busy urban street. But the new facility is designed to enable students and staff to enter and exit the building more safely.

“The old school exited right onto the sidewalk of a six-lane, one-way road,” says Boes. “In the new school, we have put a lot of open areas at the base, with sheltered areas for students to wait for transportation.”

As a struggling urban district faced with plummeting enrollment and budget deficits, Detroit has had its problems getting the new Cass Tech up and running. Boes says the design process for the new building began before the district had decided on a site. “We started designing a generic building.”

The district eventually decided to put the new facility on the site of the old school's football field. The old school took up four acres of an 8.5-acre site, so the design had to fit on what was left. That meant placing music rooms on top of swimming pools, and classrooms on top of gymnasiums, says Boes.

“The massing is somewhat the same as the old building, but the architecture is totally different,” he says.

The original plan called for demolishing the old structure once the new school was open and putting softball fields and parking lots in its place. Now, Boes says, the district can't afford the costs of tearing down the huge building, and no one in the private sector has come forth with a financially viable plan to rehabilitate it.

“It's totally in limbo,” says Boes.

Soon after the new Cass Tech opened last year, the football team had to stop using the new field. It was too cramped — the fences were too close to the sidelines and the end zones, and district officials decided that the risk of player injury was too great.

Despite that and other facility problems that have been reported since the school opened, the students and staff have reacted positively to their new home.

“The users love the building,” says Boes. “They say, ‘This is so much greater than where we came from.’ It still serves as the symbol of the district.”

Army green

More and more schools are emphasizing sustainable design and construction in their facilities, not just for the energy and cost savings, but to provide learning opportunities for students and serve as an example of environmental stewardship.

West Point's Jefferson Hall is emphasizing sustainable strategies in its design and construction. The design achieved a bronze rating under the Army's Sustainable Project Rating Tool (SPiRiT) program — similar to the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED program.

Jepsen says the Army's rating system focuses more on quality-of-life issues. “They want to keep occupants of a building comfortable. They are trying to keep a workforce.”

At Cass Tech, the design team could not get all the stakeholders to agree to pursue LEED certification, partly because of costs and the accelerated construction schedule. But the facility does incorporate some sustainable features — most notably daylighting throughout the facility.

“There is a lot of natural light and lots of views,” says Boes. “Students and teachers are constantly aware of what's outside. And people outside can see into the building — the stairwell, the running track, the media center.”

Learning in small doses

Making schools smaller is one of the education reforms that has caught on in many locales across the nation. Advocates contend that schools with fewer students have a more nurturing environment that results in better student attendance and performance, less violence and misbehavior, and more satisfied teachers.

One prominent advocate of the concept is New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Statistics from the city's school system in 2004-05 show that students in small schools have better attendance and promotion rates than the average student citywide.

Since Bloomberg has assumed control of the city's school system — the nation's largest with more than 1 million students — the city has opened dozens of small schools. Bloomberg's stated goal is to open 200 small schools by 2007.

With space at a premium in New York's dense urban setting, many of those small schools claim space in existing, underused city school buildings, often sharing the facility with one or more other schools.

However, the Bathgate Educational Campus, which opened this fall in the Bronx, bucks that trend. It is a newly constructed facility designed specifically to house multiple small schools.

“It is designed as three separate high school spaces,” says Chuck Heaphy, an architect with John Ciardullo Associates. “Each space is designed for flexibility and can be adapted for a specific use. If we were re-using an existing space, it might be harder to establish an individual identity.”

Initially, the schools were supposed to be housed in an existing two-story warehouse, Heaphy says, but after the building was examined more closely, officials determined that it had to be replaced. The Bathgate facility was built using the same footprint.

Students enter from three separate entrances and circulate vertically to classrooms on the second floor of the two-story building. Downstairs, common spaces, such as the cafeteria, library, and art and music rooms, are shared among all the schools.

The 140,000-square-foot building has three large science labs, two art spaces, a choral and music room, 37 classrooms and 5,000 square feet of multipurpose space.

As designed, the three separate schools are clearly set apart — each has a distinct color: green, yellow or blue.

“You know exactly which school it is,” says Heaphy. “You definitely can notice the character and culture of each individual school.”

Despite the intended design, the space crunch in New York City schools forced the system to alter its plans for Bathgate at the last minute.

“Originally it was supposed to be three small schools of about 500 each,” says Heaphy. “Toward the end of the process, they added a fourth school.”

The schools housed in Bathgate in its inaugural year are the Urban Assembly for Applied Math and Science, Explorations Academy, Mott Hall Bronx High School and Validus Preparatory Academy.

Kennedy is staff writer for AS&U. 

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