November 21, 2002

The big picture shows small schools

  • Smaller high schools, gaining in popularity, require changes in design approach.
    Mahlum Architects


    Smaller is better when it comes to educating and motivating high school students, especially those who have difficulties in traditional learning environments.

    That belief, held by a growing number of educators, has fueled many programs nationwide to conceive and implement more creative ways to teach secondary school students, particularly minorities and at-risk youth.

    Research by the U.S. Department of Education shows that small schools result in increased academic achievement, higher rates of graduation, improved behavior, fewer disciplinary problems and greater satisfaction among families, students and teachers.

    Educators recognize that small schools require a different approach to teaching, curriculum, parent involvement and involvement with the community. According to national studies, school enrollment should be no larger than 400 students, teachers and students should know each other well, teachers should teach in teams and they should stay with a group of students for several years.

    Truman High School
    In this floor plan for Truman High School by Mahlum Architects, space is divided to accomodate small groups of 17 students called ‘advisories.’

    “Most students learn better in small schools where there is fabric of solid relationships involving the school, the family and the student,” said Pam Morris-Stendal, principal of Harry S. Truman High School in Federal Way. Truman is a designated small school that will be among the first in the region to have a specially built structure that accommodates small learning teams.

    Truman’s program is based in part on a concept developed by Big Picture Schools of Providence, R.I., a nonprofit created to encourage and incite change in schools. Big Picture schools have opened in Oakland and El Dorado, Calif., and more are scheduled for Detroit, Denver and Sacramento, Calif.

    Others participating in what has become a near revolution include such organizations as the Institute for Learning at the University of Pittsburgh, the Rand Corp. of Santa Monica, Calif., the Small Schools Workshop in Chicago and the George Lucas Foundation in California.

    Locally, the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Affairs has a Small Schools Project that’s providing technical assistance to new small high schools being established throughout the country.

    “We’re seeing a growth of new small schools across the country as well as the creation of small schools with varying degrees of autonomy within existing large school buildings,” said Rick Lear, director of the Small Schools Project. “There is also a slow movement by state legislatures to make it easier to build small schools.”

    Funding for much of the activity has come from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has committed more than $350 million to create and support small high schools nationwide. The foundation has also made additional grants to fund teacher training, professional development for principals and superintendents, and scholarships.

    Tom Vander Ark, head of education giving for the foundation, believes that too many students get lost in big high schools, particularly disadvantaged students. He believes that for these students small schools are essential. Vander Ark lives in Federal Way and was superintendent of schools for the Federal Way School District more than five years ago when a committee of teachers, school officials and parents began talking about the kinds of changes they would like to see in education.

    A strong proponent of small schools even then, Vander Ark struck a sympathetic chord with Morris-Stendal, who preferred working in smaller, alternative schools. “I had been a teacher and a coach for 16 years in a larger school and I realized the kids responded well to working in teams and small groups. I knew that big was not good.”

    Morris-Stendal believes that in approaching small school design, architects need to think of flexible spaces, making them increasingly smaller for groups of students while avoiding creating just a series of small boxes. At the same time, designs need to foster a sense of community and they must be durable.

    “Students liked window seats, the small nooks and crannies where they imagined huddling with friends, and the overall feeling of quietness,” Morris-Stendal noted. Other elements favored by the committee: abundant light, tall ceilings, wooden beams, the industrial look of exposed metal work, and lots of plants and greenery.

    For Mahlum, design of the new Truman structure required a close collaboration with principal Morris-Stendall and her staff, the Federal Way School District, and the Mahlum design team led by design principal Anne Schopf.

    The 23,000-square-foot building has to be easily adjusted for new programs and changing techniques. The design also accommodates a large meeting space as well as increasingly smaller spaces.

    Truman actually includes two schools of 102 students each. Each school requires a space large enough for all students attending an opening 30-minute “pick me up” session every morning. Each school also requires learning areas or “advisories” for groups of 17 students each and small study rooms for up to six students. The 17 students are led by the same faculty member who remains with them for all four years of their high school experience. Learning is project-based and reliant on internships and other involvement with the community.

    Advisories are separated by partial-height walls that radiate out from a central area, reinforcing the emphasis on school community. There are no doors in these learning areas. But small study rooms are enclosed, and there is a large room for projects. Support beams have a high-tech industrial look favored by the students. Ceiling and wall panels include sound absorption material and the mechanical system provides white noise to muffle background conversations.

    A raised central clerestory provides diffused daylight throughout the building. Half of the school looks out on the natural greenery of Steele Lake Park. Vents at the clerestory level and large operable windows allow for natural ventilation. Natural daylighting is expected to reduce overall energy usage to 33 percent below code requirements.

    The two schools that make up Truman are joined by a common entry, administrative offices, meeting room, student store, kitchen, mechanical and electrical rooms. The building has no library because students make use of the Federal Way public library. A partnership with the Boys and Girls Club, which plans a youth development center on a nearby site, negates the need for a separate gymnasium.

    Although the new structure will not be completed until 2003, Truman has already been named as one of 16 high schools in the state to benefit from a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation college grant program for graduates of small schools.

    “Small schools require relearning and rethinking behaviors on the part of teachers and students, but I know students ultimately benefit from this approach,” Morris-Stendal said. “No longer can students slide through class without being noticed.”

    Butch Riefert is a principal with Mahlum Architects.

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